White House press secretary Robert Gibbs will leave his position early next month, according to a senior administration official.

Gibbs, the top public voice for the Obama administration, will pursue opportunities outside of the White House to help bolster President Obama's reelection effort, while continuing to serve as a member of the president's inner circle.

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The departure is the latest in a series of high-profile shifts within the Obama White House to begin 2011. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel left last year to pursue his candidacy for mayor of Chicago, and senior adviser David Axelrod is expected to depart this year.

A shift for Gibbs had long been rumored in press accounts of the West Wing shake-up, although reports had initially focused on the possibility that the longtime Obama aide would move into a behind-the-scenes advisory role within the White House. 

He is expected to leave the podium in early February, according to reports, but no departure date has been confirmed.

Gibbs will likely personally address the changes at his daily press briefing, scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

More recent speculation had centered around the possibility that Gibbs might be more free to represent the administration by formally leaving it, through television appearances and an expanded media portfolio. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Gibbs had hired D.C.-based lawyer Robert Barnett to represent him. 

Obama praised Gibbs's service and said "it's natural" for the press secretary to move on.

“For the last six years, Robert has been a close friend, one of my closest advisers and an effective advocate from the podium for what this administration has been doing to move America forward," the president said in a statement. "I think it’s natural for him to want to step back, reflect and retool.  That brings up some challenges and opportunities for the White House – but it doesn’t change the important role that Robert will continue to play on our team.”

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton has been seen as a possible successor to Gibbs, as has Jay Carney, a former journalist who serves as a top communications adviser to Vice President Biden. A dark-horse candidate could emerge, though, from a party committee, an interest group or from Capitol Hill.

Sam Youngman contributed to this story.

-- This story was updated at 12:14 p.m.