Looking for a creative breakthrough

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Six years into President Obama’s term, new White House press secretary Josh Earnest is looking for ways to get the president’s message to resonate with a public that is increasingly tuning Obama out.

Earnest, 39, is tasked with anchoring the final leg of a two-term marathon presidency, when an incumbent president typically battles to stay relevant.

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“We definitely are in a phase where we are looking for creative opportunities to help the president and his message break through,” Earnest told The Hill in an interview held from his new office, steps from the Oval Office.

He said the communications team wanted “creative ideas and to think outside the box about how we can help the American people understand what the president is focused on.”

Earnest, an Obama veteran who has worked for the president since the 2008 Iowa caucuses, took the baton from Jay Carney in late June. The day The Hill spoke to him, he was unpacking two photos sent by his wife to spruce up his still-undecorated office.

The president he serves is battling approval numbers in the low 40s, which have cramped any efforts to work with a Republican House. Those political realities mean Earnest will probably have an even tougher job than Carney or Robert Gibbs, Obama’s first press secretary.

“There’s no question that in this media environment, you have to be creative to break through, and that’s all the more true the longer you’re in office,” said Carney. “It’s only going to become increasingly true over the next few years. So I know everyone there is really focused on thinking about how to reach people in a way that’s different from what it was in 2009.”

Mike McCurry, who was a press secretary for Bill Clinton at the end of his first and beginning of his second term, said Earnest, “in my encounters with him, is a pretty realistic guy.”

‘There’s some recognition they’re in a tough spot right now,” he said.

Obama is shifting some of his media strategy.

In recent weeks, he sat for a long-form discussion on the economy with NPR’s “Marketplace,” watched a World Cup game with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, and spent time shopping at local businesses during a trip to Minnesota.

Tuesday night, he plans to share dinner in Colorado with a woman who wrote him a letter about his call to raise the minimum wage.

“Any of those is sort of a way to try to think creatively about the president’s message and to sort of demonstrate what his priorities are,” Earnest said. “And do it in a way that is a little outside the normal course of action.”

Carney said that as his deputy, Earnest was “always one of the people in the room thinking outside the box.”

“He was always encouraging risk-taking and he was not one — despite his Midwestern demeanor — to be averse to taking chances,” Carney said.

The personable Earnest, who had a good reputation with reporters before he won his new job, has taken a different tack than Carney or Gibbs, who at times appeared to relish confrontations with reporters and political opponents.

Earnest peppers briefings with commentary about journalists’ favorite baseball teams. In a Twitter chat, he proclaimed his love for tacos and ribbed a pair of journalists over who was his favorite.

He’s told reporters he wants to make a point of continuing, as much as possible, the open-door policy he maintained while serving as Carney’s deputy.

McCurry says that unlike Carney, who worked for decades as a reporter, Earnest doesn’t have to “labor under the suspicion that he was a journalist at heart” and prove himself to other senior administration officials by fighting with the press.

“No one doubts his fidelity, so he might be able to use more comfortable relationships with the press to argue the case for what the White House has to get done,” he said. “He’s lowered the level of acrimony already and I think that was important to do.”

Earnest said his past work, which included stints with former Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) and on former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first campaign, would help him navigate what could be bruising campaign season.

“I think my own political experience — working on campaigns, spending a little time at the DNC [Democratic National Committee], working on the Hill in an election year — that I can draw upon that experience in a way that I think will be helpful to our broader operation to the president,” he said.

Earnest orchestrates the daily press briefing differently from Carney.

While Carney focused the majority of his attention on the front row of the briefing room, where television correspondents and wire reporters sit, Earnest is more likely to move around the room to field questions from a more diverse set of reporters.

In Carney’s final briefing, he took questions from just 13 reporters, with 77 percent of the time devoted to reporters in the front row, according to Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar. By contrast, Earnest’s first week saw him spend just 51 percent of his time on the front row, fielding questions from an average of 17 reporters.

That’s led to fewer prolonged sparring sessions with television reporters.

Earnest said he thinks his approach means “people think a little bit harder about what questions they’re asking.”

“For me, sometimes, that means that people ask harder questions. But it also means that people, I’ve noticed, are more thoughtful about what they’re asking,” he added.

Still, Earnest experienced a baptism by fire in his first briefing as press secretary, when reporters chastised him for failing to mention a call between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin when asked if the president had discussed Iraq with any foreign leaders.

Asked about the exchange weeks later, Earnest said it would have been “abrupt” to mention the Putin call, which focused on Ukraine, in response to a question about Iraq. But he acknowledged that his “initial read to how people react to that was off.”

“Ultimately, that’s my responsibility,” he said. “It’s my responsibility to communicate clearly to everybody what the president is doing. And if there is a missed impression, then that’s my responsibility to clean that up.”

Reflecting on the opening weeks in the job, Earnest conceded “some days are hard,” but said he’s “genuinely excited” about the challenge he faces.

“I’m noticing I’m improving a little bit each day,” he said. “And that’s hopefully a trajectory that will continue.”

 

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