No media honeymoon as Obama’s spokesman steps to podium


Washington : More than 100 journalists crammed into the White House’s tiny press room – formerly an indoor pool – to hurl questions at US President Barack Obama’s new press secretary Robert Gibbs for his first briefing.

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Gibbs strolled into the room 10 minutes late Thursday for his first moment in the media glare, flanked by an eight-member entourage from the new president’s communications staff.

“How are you all?” a smiling Gibbs asked as he surveyed the crowd of reporters gathered staring back at him. “I’m great.”

The good humour was not returned. Gibbs received a one-hour grilling from journalists on everything from the planned closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp to Obama’s plans for the shrinking economy and the embarrassing do-over of his swearing-in ceremony.

Perhaps it was the heat, all the more notable when compared to the sub-zero temperatures just outside the small room. Print journalists stood shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of photographers and television cam operators for the first opportunity to challenge Gibbs.

“We should sell tickets,” Gibbs quipped. “Have it go to the deficit or something.”

The soft-spoken Gibbs handled the onslaught relatively calmly, cracking jokes with some reporters and confidently making his way through the sea of hands in the crowded room.

Gibbs exhibited little passion in his answers, a characteristic common to many his predecessors as White House press secretary.

Having served as Obama’s communications director for much of the gruelling two-year presidential campaign, Gibbs is no stranger to the press inquisition.

The 37-year-old Gibbs, whose Alabama roots bring a southern drawl to the position, has been Obama’s chief spokesman since he was elected to the US Senate in November 2004.

Yet those who expected the press secretary to represent the “change” that embodied Obama’s presidential campaign will likely be disappointed.

Gibbs ducked questions and used many of the same tactics of repetition and caginess employed by past press secretaries. He refused to “prejudge” the findings of a Guantanamo task-force being formed by Obama, when asked about the administration’s plans for the Cuban prison.

Asked many times over why Obama felt it necessary to take the oath of office a second time Wednesday – after Chief Justice John Roberts erred on a word during Tuesday’s inauguration – Gibbs repeatedly referred to the statement put out Wednesday night: It was taken out of “an abundance of caution”.

There were few mistakes during Gibbs’ first press conference, but also little new information. Perhaps the most notable flub was when Gibbs blew the cover of a background briefing on Guantanamo that was held one hour before Gibbs took the stage.

The White House refused to allow reporters to cite by name the individuals who held the background briefing. Those efforts became moot as Gibbs repeatedly referred to “Greg” – presumably White House counsel Greg Craig – during the nationally televised briefing.