Press Secretary Robert Gibbs leaving White House, sort of

Robert Gibbs will leave the post of White House press secretary in February. But he will remain an adviser to President Obama, in addition to joining the speaking circuit.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gives a daily briefing at the White House on Dec. 20.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs shocked the Washington press corps Wednesday by announcing that he is leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in early February.

Mr. Gibbs had long been rumored to be headed for an “inside” position as a senior adviser to President Obama. In fact, Gibbs is not really leaving Obama World. From an office in downtown Washington, Gibbs will remain a political adviser to the president and his reelection campaign. He also plans to go on the speaking circuit, but not start a consulting business, he told The New York Times.

During Mr. Obama’s two years as president, and long before that, Gibbs has been no ordinary press flak. Since Obama won his Senate primary 2004, Gibbs has been a close adviser with wide-open access.

“For the last six years, Robert has been a close friend, one of my closest advisers and an effective advocate from the podium for what this administration has been doing to move America forward," Obama said in a statement Wednesday. "I think it’s natural for him to want to step back, reflect and retool. That brings up some challenges and opportunities for the White House – but it doesn’t change the important role that Robert will continue to play on our team.”

Who will replace Gibbs?

There’s already a short list of potential Gibbs replacements: Jay Carney, Vice President Joe Biden’s communications director and a former White House correspondent for Time magazine; Bill Burton, deputy White House press secretary and principal fill-in at briefings; and Josh Earnest, also a deputy White House press secretary.

The Gibbs announcement comes as other key appointments hang in the balance. For chief of staff, Obama is reported to be choosing between two people: William Daley, former Clinton administration Commerce secretary and brother of the outgoing mayor of Chicago Richard Daley (who Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, is running to replace); and Pete Rouse, the current acting chief of staff.

For top economic adviser, replacing the departed Larry Summers, Obama’s reported top choice is Gene Sperling, an adviser to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and another Clinton alum.

Both positions could be announced in the next week or so.

Gibbs vs. the left

Gibbs had an easy-going, though occasionally testy, relationship with the White House press corps. But Obama’s progressive base is probably not shedding a tear over his departure. Last August, in an interview with The Hill newspaper, Gibbs took after liberals for demanding ideological purity over deal-making (a refrain Obama himself repeated last month in a press conference).

“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”

Referring derisively to members of the “professional left,” Gibbs added that “they will be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

Gibbs also made news last year when he indicated on a Sunday talk show last year that Democrats could lose control of the House in the November midterms. This, of course, was true at the time – and proved true in the election results. But Gibbs was taken to task by Democrats, including then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for saying it out loud. She called him “politically inept.”

As a native of Auburn, Ala., Gibbs has been valuable to Obama for his insights into the politics of the Deep South, where Democrats have become increasingly rare. Now Gibbs is leaving the White House, but he’ll still be a phone call or e-mail away.

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