• Politics

The President’s Warrior, Robert Gibbs

5 minute read
Michael Scherer

Hours after the lowest point of his boss’s first two weeks in office, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs ended the first chapter of the Obama presidency and launched the second. At the end of his morning staff meeting–where his team had gathered to discuss the handling of issues from the first fortnight, including Tom Daschle’s unexpected failure to join the Cabinet because of tax-compliance problems–Gibbs reminded members of his team what they had come to Washington to do.

“One other thing,” Gibbs said as the room went quiet. “When the President said ‘I screwed up’ last night, that officially ended our experiment with sipping from the waters of the Potomac,” he continued, referring to the Obama team’s determination not to be sucked into old Washington ways. “I, for one, don’t want to look back four years from now and think, We should have done this differently.”

In the days that followed, the Obama Administration, with Gibbs serving as both point man and presidential confidant, made its first big pivot. Gone was the emphasis on backroom schmoozing, the Capitol Hill and Super Bowl mixers, the bipartisan glad-handing. Instead, Obama notched up his criticism of the Republicans and set off on a cross-country sales tour through struggling towns and cities, culminating in his mid-February swing through Phoenix and Denver, where he signed his historic $787 billion stimulus bill.

The pivot had a simple purpose, as Gibbs never hesitated to remind reporters: to show Americans that Obama is a different kind of leader, one who will make Washington a more transparent and functional place. “There were 17 people who ran for President, and only one survived,” Gibbs said in his staff pep talk. “People didn’t vote for us just so that we would do the things that any of the other 16 candidates would do.”

Gibbs’ Southern twang and peachy face do not make him the most likely daytime-television star, even if he has, in the words of presidential aide David Axelrod, “classed himself up” since the election by buying a rainbow of pastel ties and dropping about 15 lb. (7 kg). Yet almost every weekday, Gibbs anchors his own show with the White House press corps, and it has become a key place to discover what the Administration is planning next.

And a good place to take the ambient temperature of the busiest White House in a generation. Gibbs often deflects the harshest questions with a quick joke, sports metaphor or canned response about Obama’s plans to “change” Washington. Once the cameras stop rolling, he retreats to his office for a moment alone to power down. “There is a pretty big adrenaline rush when you are out there,” he says. “You do need about half an hour to just sort of decompress.”

Born in 1971, Gibbs was raised in Auburn, Ala., where both parents worked for the Auburn University library system. He played goalkeeper for the men’s soccer team at North Carolina State, a position that may have prepared him for the series of campaign press jobs he took after graduation. By 2002, he had landed at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he had an easy way with reporters–displaying a sharp edge when needed. “He had a real mean streak,” fondly remembers Jim Jordan, who worked with Gibbs at the time and later during John Kerry’s 2004 presidential-primary campaign.

By 2004, Gibbs found himself out of work, with a wife, a newborn son and a job offer in Chicago to work for an upstart U.S. Senate candidate named Barack Obama. Brad Woodhouse, a fellow Democratic operative and sometime fishing buddy, remembers telling Gibbs at the time that Obama could be President one day. There was no way of guessing then how integral a role Gibbs would play in that effort. But it turned out to be a vital one. “There isn’t a single decision that the President has formed in the course of his campaign or the presidency that Robert didn’t weigh in on,” says Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s most senior advisers.

When Gibbs said the President was done drinking from the Potomac, an aide recalls, the message was received as if it had come from Obama himself, given the frequency with which the two men talk. Gibbs and Obama have developed what Pete Rouse, another top aide, calls a “back-and-forth, locker-room camaraderie” that includes occasional heated arguments with raised voices. “Robert will never pull his punches with the President,” says Rouse. They tease each other frequently: asked by Jarrett to describe Gibbs’ sense of humor for TIME, Obama deadpanned, “Robert is very funny, but I can’t remember any of his jokes.”

Maybe not, but what matters most to White House reporters is that Gibbs has the President’s ear and can get to the Commander in Chief when an answer is needed. Though Gibbs’ aides speak of him affectionately as a “silent killer” whose mood can turn from warm to ice-cold when his boss’s motives are challenged, they add that he has been consciously trying to shift into a more press-friendly role at the White House, a move symbolized by his often open office door. “He’s always been good with the stick,” Axelrod jokes about Gibbs. “He has also learned over time to use the carrot.”

That’s change you can believe in.

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