New White House Press Secretary Jay Carney held his first briefing on Wednesday, drawing a standing-room-only crowd who sized up the man replacing Robert Gibbs, President Obama's longtime confidant, adviser and sidekick.
Carney, brought into the Obama fold two years ago from Time Magazine, was seasoned as Vice President Joe Biden's spokesman. He did fine on the first day, mainly because he made no mistakes (watch video below). He was measured, affable, serious, and committed little news. He seemed a bit nervous.
Carney was adroit in turning aside a hypothetical question about debt, but got snagged at the very end by answering a harmless hypothetical (Press Secretary Rule One is to swat down such questions.)
"Do you have a preference on which member of the cast of "Saturday Night Live" plays you this weekend?"
Carney's answer: "God forbid that anyone does."
Towson University Professor Martha Joynt Kumar, a specialist in presidential communication, noted that "in your first briefing, you simply do not want to screw up."
Carney did not.
Kumar said it "takes several sessions before a press secretary establishes his rhythm." Reporters want information, and "that is the standard of how a press secretary is going to be judged," Kumar told Politics Daily.
Carney was about 15 minutes late for the briefing, called for 12:30 p.m., and took questions for about 53 minutes. Of the 28 reporters he called on, he spent 40 minutes with 14 reporters from national outlets who sit in the first two rows of the briefing room and are used to dominating White House briefings. Running out the clock in an hour briefing with reporters in those rows is a standard White House press secretary technique; reporters from other outlets might ask less predictable questions.
But to his credit, Carney did reach to the back of the room and called on a few reporters Gibbs usually ignored.
Carney's first question -- by custom, always from the Associated Press reporter -- (on Wednesday it was AP's Ben Feller) had to do with his role as press secretary, "particularly as a former journalist."
"Do you think when you come out here that your primary job as you see it is to promote the interests of the president, or is it primarily to provide us with unvarnished information so we can inform the public?"
Replied Carney, "The press secretary is a unique position within a White House. And not just because I'm a former journalist, because I think every press secretary understood this and understands it -- I work to promote the president and the message that he's trying -- the messages he's trying to convey to the American people.
"But I also work with the press to try to help you do your jobs -- to help you cover the White House, cover the administration, and report on what we're doing here. So I think it's been said before that the office that the press secretary has is somewhat symbolically located about halfway between the briefing room and the Oval Office, and I think that says something about what the nature of the job is."
Carney announced that Obama on Wednesday was scheduled to be interviewed by television outlets in Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Richmond. NBC's Chuck Todd noted these TV markets cover the districts of the House GOP leaders: John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.
Asked Todd, "Coincidence?"
"He has meetings with Americans around the country and this is just part of the process," Carney said, wraping up remarks I thought did not address Todd's query.
"Oh, come on, Jay," I called out.
Said Carney, "This is almost fun."
ABC's Ann Compton asked Carney questions about the presidency, and the press, and the press secretary.
"How often should a president have a news conference?"
No "hard and fast rule," replied Carney, noting that Obama on Tuesday met with reporters.
Should cabinet meetings be open to some media coverage? Access has been limited of late.
"There are no hard and fast rules, Ann. I think that we're committed to providing access and we're also committed to getting the work done here that the American people expect us to get done."
And how often will Carney brief the media?
Said Carney, "I'm committed to briefing frequently."
Obama and Carney talked "a couple of times" in the morning before his maiden briefing.
Carney did confirm one fact: Obama "wished me luck" before his debut.
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