White House press secretary Robert Gibbs walked out of his West Wing office late Wednesday evening, suit jacket off and brow furrowed, telling assistant Marissa Hopkins as he walked past her desk: “I need to talk to him.”
The him in this case was President Obama.
For Gibbs, the days of walking down the hall into the Oval Office to see the president are coming to a close.
The press secretary will hold his last briefing on Friday, and will then turn to his new role of helping Obama with his messaging from the outside.
“I don’t doubt that I will have opinions to share from time to time on TV,” Gibbs said in an interview with The Hill.
But first, after cleaning out his West Wing office this weekend, Gibbs insists he will take some real time off before jumping into the 2012 reelection fray.
Gibbs, who turns 40 in March, has spent seven grueling years with Obama that included a long Democratic primary and general-election battle that took place against the backdrop of an economic recession.
Obama’s first two years in office were no picnic, either. Gibbs was the administration’s daily voice during battles over the stimulus package, healthcare reform and a host of other issues.
Gibbs, who seemed relaxed in the short interview, said that he will not fully re-engage with his boss’s reelection effort until sometime in 2012.
The demeanor represented a marked change from past talks with Gibbs, who coined the term the “professional left” in describing White House scorn toward liberal critics in an August 2010 interview.
Gibbs says he is serious about taking some time off, but that he also plans to give some speeches, which could make him a large sum of money. He is also set to launch his own consulting venture.
The slow pace so far to the 2012 presidential election is one reason Gibbs is taking his time. No major Republicans have so far publicly announced their intention to challenge Obama, though several are openly preparing races. Gibbs said this has given him some extra time before he has to commit fully to Obama’s campaign effort.
Gibbs’s departure is a big change for the White House, too. Don’t be shocked to see Obama pay a visit to the briefing room on Friday to mark the transition.
Jay Carney, the former spokesman for Vice President Biden who will replace Gibbs, has been engaged in preparatory sessions with press aides for the past two weeks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Carney is getting briefed on all the issues Obama’s spokesman must master. On Wednesday, the subject was foreign policy.
For the last two years, Gibbs has been the captain of a group of press aides whose loyalties and friendships were forged during the marathon campaign of 2008.
It is unclear how many of those aides will stay with the White House now that Carney is taking over, though insiders say the new press secretary wants to keep as much of the staff as he can.
But there will certainly be a shift. Bill Burton, a deputy press secretary in the running to replace Gibbs, was even mentioned by The Washington Post on Thursday as a possible congressional candidate to replace Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), who resigned after a self-inflicted Craigslist controversy on Wednesday.
The biggest question is whether Carney, someone who wasn’t on the campaign with Obama, will have the same access to Obama that Gibbs did, access that Gibbs has called critical to doing the job well.
Carney will also be the spokesman for a White House actively trying to engage with Republicans and business groups it mostly confronted over the past two years.
Yet Gibbs disputed the notion that he might be longing for the daily warfare of a campaign instead of the kindler, gentler post-midterm podium.
“I actually always preferred the bipartisan stuff to the warfare,” he said.
That might surprise those who remember Gibbs relishing battles with CNBC reporter Rick Santelli, but in recent days the press secretary has been restrained in addressing Sarah Palin’s criticisms of Obama’s response to the crisis in Egypt.
The difference, Gibbs said, is the criticisms, not any life changes or mellowing since he took the podium.
Santelli was making false and inflammatory statements about Obama’s approach to the housing crisis, Gibbs said. Palin was riffing in a statement that Gibbs said was borderline “incoherent” in his cautious comments about the Egyptian crisis.
Outside the White House, Gibbs will have more freedom to speak. Still, while he will be seen soon on television, he might not have the presence one gets from being the White House press secretary.
“I don’t want to be a ubiquitous presence on cable,” he said.