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Gibbs' Podium Playbook Keeps White House On Message

Today's press briefing will likely be the last for Robert Gibbs in 2009, a long first year at the podium for the White House press secretary. As the year comes to a close 'tis the season for reflection, and after more than 130 jousting sessions from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, an informal survey of regular working members of the White House press corps provides a predictably mixed picture of the administration's chief spokesman.

To be sure, reporters are often dissatisfied with the information flow of a new administration that promised historic transparency, and confrontations were common and at times tense in the cramped quarters of the press room. But there was also a grudging respect of Gibbs' performance at the end of his first calendar year behind the podium.

Most of all, reporters credit Gibbs for having the one thing that is of perhaps most value to them: regular access to and the trust of the president himself. Gibbs has been at Obama's side throughout his rise in national politics, including most of the campaign. "I trust him completely," the president told the New York Times a year ago.

Now, he's a regular participant in Oval Office strategy sessions, and no one doubts he has the ear of the principal. "You know when he speaks, he's doing so with knowledge of the president's thinking," one longtime White House reporter said. "That's the most important thing for any press secretary."

Another correspondent speculated that while Gibbs "loves the show" and has been effective behind the podium, the preparation the regular briefings calls for has robbed him of more time "in the room," advising the president. But this White House understands the value of having a plugged-in staffer like Gibbs out front with the press. "They don't want to demean the podium," the correspondent said. "They know that helps their credibility."

The role of the press secretary is far more than just to stand behind the podium, but that is largely the way he or she is judged. To date, Gibbs has stood under the bright lights for more than 130 briefings, fielding questions, sometimes with company, for a total of more than 104 hours - the equivalent of more than four full days.

Of late, however, it seems Gibbs has scaled back ever so slightly the frequency of those televised briefings. The number, of course, varies with the president's travel schedule, but Gibbs has held just 12 briefings since November 1; he had averaged about 13 each month in the prior nine months. At the same time, Gibbs has held several invitation-only "gaggles" in his office, ensuring a smaller number of questions and a more informal give-and-take that contrasts from the often times overly choreographed briefing room affairs.

The stakes are higher when the camera is rolling, as any major gaffe could be endlessly replayed in the cable news echo chamber this White House deplores. And yet, reporters credit Gibbs for what is called a largely steady record in that setting. Of course there were screw-ups, slips of the tongue and overly-hyperbolic spin. But few rose to the level of a "flame-out" the likes of some of his predecessors that set the administration off course.

That's what Obama sought. In the Times interview before both took their current posts, the then-president-elect said that one thing that what was "underappreciated" about Gibbs was his discipline, that he "doesn't color outside the lines." Without naming too many examples of Gibbs coloring outside the lines, reporters listed a number of favored tactics and defining moments from his year behind the podium. Here are some of the highlights of the Gibbs playbook in 2009.

The Instigator

Several reporters contended that Gibbs, more so than most other recent press secretaries, has been adept at using his perch to go on offense and drive a new story line. "His ability to frame attacks on the GOP is his strength," one correspondent remarked. Early in the year, Gibbs was at the forefront of Democratic efforts to elevate Rush Limbaugh, often the administration's harshest critic, to the status of leader of the Republican Party.

And while his barbs are often directed at Republicans, he just as frequently, it seems, targets the pundit class inside and outside the Beltway. One of his more notable early moments a clash with CNBC's Rick Santelli over what was actually in the president's proposed stimulus plan. Later, he welcomed a fight against another CNBC host, Jim Cramer, over economic policy.

Link: Gibbs on Santelli

The Wise Crack

In May, Politico reported that White House transcripts of the daily briefings included more than 600 annotations of "laughter," far more than many of his superiors mustered. The jokes were commonly directed at reporters, but often it was self-deprecation -- one only needs to recall Gibbs' decision to offer himself up as a target for reporters at a dunk tank before a White House picnic.

The dark side of humor is sarcasm, and that is also a favorite tool of the press secretary's. When former Vice President Cheney targeted the Obama administration on keeping the nation safe, Gibbs retorted: "I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal." He later amended the comment to say, "I hope my sarcasm didn't mask the seriousness of the answer," and conceded he often asks forgiveness rather than permission.

The Stonewall

Gibbs stonewalled early and often this year, and did so a number of ways. He might take a specific question and respond with general talking points, preceding that response with, "Well, let me take a broader view." If that didn't work, Gibbs might say he didn't want to "prejudge" a forthcoming decision or "get ahead of" an announcement coming from White House officials. But perhaps most often Gibbs would deftly say to a reporter, "Let me get back to you on that." If a follow up did come, it wasn't on camera.

Some of Gibbs' most heated confrontations this year came on the issue of transparency. In August, he sparred with Major Garrett when the Fox correspondent asked how the White House developed an e-mail distribution list, given that he said many who received a communication from the administration had never asked for it. "Let me go to someplace else that might be constructive," Gibbs said at the end of the exchange. In February, when ABC's Jake Tapper asked flatly if the president believed in transparency, Gibbs retorted: "Did you have another, more pertinent question?"

The Straw Men

If Gibbs found himself in a tough spot, he'd go to the bullpen and call for the straw man. He especially enjoyed pointing out when he thought reporters made a supposition that directly contradicted a previous claim. Just weeks ago, when asked why President Obama has not had a formal press conference in months, Gibbs replied: "I think the last time we got a question about the President answering questions, if I'm not mistaken, it was -- wasn't it couched in the notion that he was overexposed?"

The Ethan Bomb

Ethan refers to Gibbs' 6-year-old son, who has been mentioned throughout the year in various situations. He's generally been used in good fun, but the most common example of Gibbs crossing the line this year in the mind of White House reporters came recently, during an exchange with the American Urban Radio Network's April Ryan. Ryan was pressing Gibbs over social secretary Desiree Rogers in the wake of the State Dinner crashing, when things went off course. "April, calm down. Take a deep breath. Now see? I do this with my son and that's what happens." Days later, Gibbs again caused a stir in a gaggle as he downplayed daily tracking polls, saying a 6-year-old with a crayon could produce the same result.

The Enforcer

One lesson all reporters learned this year: don't leave your cell phone ringer on loud during a briefing. Gibbs did not hesitate to enforce the policy when interrupted.

Ultimately, while Gibbs' main constituency day-to-day is the press corps, he's playing to the larger public in trying to communicate the president's message. If a recent Clarus Poll is any guide, it seems the American public give him generally good marks as well: 50 percent approved of his job performance, behind only Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretaries Clinton and Gates among the inner circle.