Gibbs’ departure turns focus to who will replace him at White House podium

Jon Ward Contributor
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Now who gets the flak jacket?

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs is making a surprise move to leave the administration and start his own consulting business, with an eye toward playing a major role in the 2012 campaign.

“We’ve been on this ride together since I won my Senate primary in 2004,” President Obama told the New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny on Wednesday, in an interview. “He’s had a six-year stretch now where basically he’s been going 24/7 with relatively modest pay. I think it’s natural for someone like Robert to want to step back for a second to reflect, retool and that, as a consequence, brings about both challenges and opportunities for the White House.”

Gibbs’s departure will please many in the so-called “professional left,” the broad coalition of liberal groups who supported Obama but were less than pleased with what they felt was condescension from Gibbs and other Obama advisers. The president’s most committed ideological supporters viewed Gibbs as more concerned with political considerations than with staying true to principle.

The hot question now is who will replace Gibbs, 39, and receive the actual protective vest that hangs in the press secretary’s office, with notes from previous presidential shields. The word is that no replacement will be named immediately, however, and may more than a week or two away.

The two top candidates are Gibbs’s deputy, Bill Burton, and Jay Carney, Vice President Joe Biden’s spokesman.

Burton is the only who has briefed reporters from the White House podium, and on Air Force One, when Gibbs has been otherwise occupied. Burton has briefed White House reporters 53 times over the last two years – mostly on Air Force One or on vacation – according to CBS News’ Mark Knoller, who keeps meticulous presidential statistics.

But there are concerns over Burton’s youth — he is 33 — and he is not as close to the president as Gibbs is.

Neither is Carney, but he is older, at 45, and is a transplant into political communications from the world of political journalism, having worked at Time Magazine for 20 years prior to joining the administration.

Other potential candidates are Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, 42, who is also a former journalist at ABC, and Jake Siewert, who served as White House press secretary to former President Bill Clinton during the last four months of his presidency and is now an adviser to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Josh Earnest, who has played a less visible role behind the scenes as Gibbs’ other deputy press secretary but has developed strong relations with many members of the press corps, is also a candidate for the job.

Most former White House communicators contacted by The Daily Caller declined to comment on who should get the job. But Scott McClellan, former Bush White House from 2003 to 2006, suggested that whomever is chosen, the Obama administration should revamp the way the White House does press briefings and “do away with the current, outdated press briefing model and adopt a new one.”

“The daily press briefing needs to evolve into something that is less dependent upon the press secretary as the primary briefer. The briefing has long been too much of a political dance of spin and gotcha instead of a substantive discussion that gives people greater insight into the workings of their government,” McClellan said by e-mail.

“A new model where senior officials from the White House and the administration were routinely brought into the room to brief could lend itself to more focus on substance, openness and transparency if structured the right way,” he said. “This White House pledged to be much more open and transparent. They should look at adopting a new model for the briefing as an opportunity to help fulfill that commitment.”

Correction: This article originally reported Carney to be 44 years old.

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