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Jay Carney debuts as Obama's new press secretary

Jay Carney eases into his role as the new White House press secretary during his first televised briefing. The former Time magazine Washington bureau chief replaces Robert Gibbs.

February 16, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • The White House's new press secretary, Jay Carney, speaks during his first media briefing. The former Time magazine Washington bureau chief was named to his new post after Robert Gibbs stepped down last week.
The White House's new press secretary, Jay Carney, speaks during… (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — As he first stood at the lectern in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, Jay Carney let out a big, nervous sigh.

When his first televised briefing was over, he joked, "It was better than I ever could have imagined."

In the intervening 53-plus minutes, the new White House press secretary handled the usual grab bag of questions without major incident as he eased in to the most conspicuous part of what is one of the most high-profile jobs in Washington.

Carney replaced Robert Gibbs as the lead White House mouthpiece on Monday, and his debut press briefing took place Wednesday. And there was no shortage of major issues facing the Obama administration that Carney was asked to speak on, including the new budget and the growing government protests in the Middle East.

As was to be expected, Carney also faced questions about himself and his view on his new role. The former Time magazine Washington bureau chief acknowledged his "unique position within the White House," and "not just because I'm a former journalist."

"I work to promote the president and 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," he explained.

Several reporters used the opportunity to press for greater access to the administration and more openness in its activities. Carney on at least two occasions, including when asked about candidate Obama's promises for unprecedented transparency, was noncommittal.

"The administration is committed to openness and transparency. We are also committed to getting things done," he said, implying a natural tension between the two.

Much of Wednesday's Q-and-A was devoted to the president's new budget, and Carney barely strayed from talking points.

Amid criticism from Republicans that Obama "punted" by failing to address entitlements and other major drivers of deficits, Carney emphasized that the discussion was just beginning.

"The president's very confident that if we get together with both sides -- members of Congress, the president -- that something can be accomplished. And he believes that the approach he's taking by putting forward a budget that is serious about the need to reduce spending but is also serious about the need to continue to promote economic growth and innovation and infrastructure … helped create an environment where we can have these conversations in a productive way."

Carney was also quizzed about foreign policy, and referred one question on Israel to the State Department. It was pointed out that the first question Gibbs was asked was on the president's goal to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and Carney was asked to revisit the administration's position two years later.

"The president remains committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, because as our military commanders have made clear, it's a national security priority to do so," he said.

He also employed a common dodge used by his predecessor, at various points saying he refused "to speculate" or engage in hypotheticals.

In a his briefing room debut, even Carney's wardrobe was fodder for conversation. Carney avoided the flashy, pastel ties that were Gibbs' trademark and wore a bland, striped version. He was largely even-toned and serious, where his predecessor often spiced his answers with humorous jabs.

But, while answering another question about the curious choice of television stations from Wisconsin, Ohio and Virginia to have interviews with Obama on Wednesday, Carney offered a wry smile as he professed no ulterior political motive to having the president sit down with affiliates in the home towns of leading Republicans Paul Ryan, John Boehner and Eric Cantor.

"He travels around the country. He has meetings with Americans around the country, and this is just part of that process," he said.

Before making the short walk from his office to what was an unusually crowded briefing room, Carney said he had met with the president, who wished him luck.

He promised to do it all again Thursday.

mmemoli@tribune.com

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