White House press secretary Robert Gibbs looked genuinely irritated Monday, telling reporters in his office that President Obama did not intend for news of Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court to be leaked to the press Sunday evening.
“These are the president’s picks and the president ought to have the opportunity to announce them when he wants to,” Gibbs said.
If the White House indeed wanted to keep the news a secret until Monday morning, it must have been one of the few disappointments on a day that saw a highly scripted and carefully planned rollout of the administration’s pick for the nation’s highest court.
Of course, the Kagan leaks did not look uncoordinated. Politico’s Mike Allen reported Friday morning that Kagan would likely be the nominee, and that the news would first come out Sunday evening. That is exactly what happened.
The nomination was in many respects a study in how the Obama White House has learned to use the modern media environment to its advantage and created a new playbook in the world of digital communications. A handful of storylines counter to White House talking points gained ground Monday: Rumors about Kagan’s sexuality became a focus and were fueled in part by the administration’s defensiveness, some critics questioned White House claims that she is in touch with every day working people and her decision to ban military recruiters from Harvard’s campus when she was dean of its law school received a lot of attention. But overall, Obama’s communications team could probably not have asked for a more receptive environment into which the president introduced his pick.
By the time Obama appeared with Kagan at 10 a.m. Monday in the White House East Room, there was a general resignation in Washington that she was a virtual lock for confirmation, created in large part by the convention wisdom, pushed hard by the administration, that Kagan is a smart and moderate jurist, even if liberal.
The White House also went out of its way Monday to neutralize any damage it might incur at the televised daily briefing, holding off-camera question and answer sessions separately with TV reporters and print reporters less than an hour after the announcement.
In the days leading up to the announcement, the White House did its best to gauge reactions from different constituencies: Republicans in the Senate, liberal activists, the press. Obama staff carefully placed bits and pieces of information in the hands of select reporters to signal who the president was going to choose and to test whether or not potential lines of attack would be picked up by conservatives or not.
By floating Kagan’s name days in advance the White House was able to observe the potency of criticisms of Kagan from the left, while reaping the political benefits of having her appear more moderate because of the attacks.
Gibbs, of course, denied that politics played any role whatsoever in the decision and the execution of the announcement.
“The president was focused on picking the very best person to be the Supreme Court nominee,” he said.
Pressed to name a number indicating what percentage of the president’s choice was politically motivated, Gibbs doubled down.