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Obama, new spokesman share 'no drama' approach

Barack Obama's new spokesman may be just the right guy for the president's approach to governing: Obama doesn't like drama and Jay Carney doesn't seem to invite it.
Jay Carney
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaks during his first daily news briefing as press secretary at the White House in Washington on Feb. 16.Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barack Obama's new spokesman may be just the right guy for the president's approach to governing: Obama doesn't like drama and Jay Carney doesn't seem to invite it.

A month into his tenure as Obama's press secretary, Carney doesn't appear to be looking for fight each time he enters the daily press briefing. Unlike his feisty predecessor, Robert Gibbs, Carney hasn't spent his career in partisan politics — his main experience is as a reporter — and his style is more measured.

"He is not part of the journalistic culture of hyping conflicts," said Walter Isaacson, the former editor of Time magazine, where Carney worked for two decades. "I think he will be disdainful of those who try to hype conflict unfairly because he spent so much of his career being intellectually honest."

As Carney works to make his mark, it's increasingly clear why Obama chose him. His disposition is a good match for the more disciplined, take-the-long-view culture pushed at the White House these days by Obama's new chief of staff, Bill Daley, and senior adviser David Plouffe.

Their goal is to focus on big-picture objectives, not the least of which is getting Obama re-elected in 2012, even if that means holding fire and absorbing hits from Republicans in the short term.

As the White House's main message-bearer, Carney has much of the responsibility for conveying that new approach to the public.

Winning over Obama veterans
White House aides are careful not to compare Gibbs and Carney. They do say Carney is winning respect among Obama veterans, many of whom have been with the president's team since the 2008 campaign, by tempering the pace of change and respecting the operations in place before he came onboard.

Carney has made a few symbolic overtures to reporters who cover the president.

On his first day, he dropped by the small offices behind the briefing room where reporters work and introduced himself.

He sent an e-mail with his contact information to reporters.

Twice, he's climbed into the press van, not the staff van, for motorcade rides during presidential trips, chatting amicably with reporters about everything from how he's settling into the job to a recent family ski trip.

The most noticeable change: Carney is taking questions in the daily briefings from a wider variety of reporters. Gibbs focused mainly on the television networks, large newspapers and wire services that occupy the front seats in the briefing room.

On a good day, Carney's strategy helps introduce fresh topics into the briefing. But the free-for-all approach can become unwieldy and difficult for Carney to control. He acknowledged they are a work in progress.

"I'm going to start with what's here and make some changes along the way," he said.

Shift from journalism to White House politics
Carney, a 45-year-old Virginia native, left journalism shortly after the 2008 election to become Vice President Joe Biden's communications director. The move surprised many of his press colleagues, who said Carney never betrayed a partisan tilt in his years covering Washington.

But Carney grew fiercely loyal to Biden, leaving no question that the former reporter was now playing for the administration's team.

"I saw him once yelling into the phone at a journalist, and I thought 'Well, OK, this is going to be just fine,'" said Ron Klain, Biden's former chief of staff.

Carney's relationship with the president is evolving.

They first met in 2004, when Obama was running for Senate. Carney led a team of Time reporters covering Obama's 2008 presidential bid, though he did not cover the campaign himself. He dealt with the president sporadically during the two years he worked for Biden.

Klain said Carney shares Obama's even-keeled temperament, a quality that should serve the new press secretary well as he builds a relationship with his boss.

"Jay is very candid and direct. And the president likes people who are straight with him and don't create drama," said Klain, who left the administration this year.

Despite his similarities with the president — they are about the same age and have children close in age — Carney lacks the intimate knowledge of the president's thinking that Gibbs developed through several years as Obama's close friend and political adviser.

Sticking to the briefing book
Gibbs' level of comfort translated into free-flowing and sometimes unwieldy answers to reporters' questions. Carney is more cautious, sticking to shorter answers and administration talking points. He relies heavily on his briefing book — a binder filled with talking points and background on topics his aides think he might get asked about during the daily briefing. On an average day, there are up to 40 topics in the book.

Ann Compton, a White House reporter for ABC Radio for more than 30 years, said it's too soon to tell how successful Carney's tenure as press secretary may be, but he's come across as timid during his initial briefings.

"I get the feeling that he's making a deliberate effort to make no news from the podium," she said.

Veteran CBS White House correspondent Peter Maer said Carney's ability to wean himself off the briefing book will be "a test to how plugged in he is."

White House aides say Carney has access to the same high-level meetings Gibbs did, but his role in those meetings is far different. Gibbs was a top adviser to the president, one aide said, and Carney is not, nor is he seeking to be at this point.

Many in the press corps — as well as some in the administration — hope Carney can improve the relationship between the White House and the reporters who cover it. Many reporters had grown frustrated with Gibbs, who was inconsistent in responding to their e-mails and phone calls, and was sometimes sarcastic when he did.

As he finds his footing in his new role, Carney said his experience as a journalist is helpful, but shouldn't be oversold.

"I can be empathetic without being particularly sympathetic," he said. "I can be mad or think you got it wrong, but I know it's not because you're out to get us."