01.27.11

Can Jay Carney Deliver for Obama?

He wrangled Joe Biden and tangled with John McCain. But how will the former reporter fare at the podium as Obama's new mouthpiece? Howard Kurtz reports.

To get a sense of the challenge facing Jay Carney as he steps behind the White House podium, consider this:

In the early months of the administration, a Washington Post editorial accused Joe Biden of having “foot-in-mouth disease.” New York Times columnist Gail Collins called him "Washington's most compulsive talker." And who can forget when the vice president of the United States, pushing the new stimulus package, said that no matter what the administration did “there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong”?

Biden had become a punchline. But by the fall, Newsweek was running a cover story headlined, “Why Joe Is No Joke.”

As Biden’s communications director, Carney doesn’t deserve primary credit for the image overhaul; Biden’s growing role in the administration, and a somewhat more disciplined style, are the major factors. But as a career journalist who toiled for Time magazine, Carney obviously understands the needs of working-stiff reporters and comes from a different place than longtime Obama loyalist Robert Gibbs.

In fact, Carney is the first reporter to make the transition from Washington scribe to White House press secretary since Gerald Ford tapped Ron Nessen in 1974. Larry Speakes, Marlin Fitzwater, Dee Dee Myers, Mike McCurry, Joe Lockhart, Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan, Dana Perino: all were public-relations specialists. The late Tony Snow, George W. Bush’s third spokesman, came from the other side, but he was an opinion guy who became a Fox News and radio host.

While there are already jokes on Twitter about who can write the best “beat-sweetener” piece about Carney, he long ago made the transition from hack to flack, putting the needs of his client before those of his onetime colleagues.

One of them, former Time columnist Margaret Carlson, says that “Jay is better than anyone at whatever he’s doing--exposing corruption in Moscow, running the fractious Washington bureau of Time, running the unrunnable Joe Biden. At the end of the day, Jay’s ahead of everyone—without throwing an elbow—on the basis of sheer intelligence and decency. When we covered the White House together, sources called him.”

(Friends also say the Yale graduate is no stranger to vanity. At a surprise birthday party, his wife, ABC’s Claire Shipman, produced a video in which the main theme was the amount of product he applied to his blond tresses.)

The best press secretaries, of course, manage to make both sides happy. And Carney, a low-key, genial fellow, certainly grasps the kind of behind-the-scenes color and inside tidbits that reporters crave.

Handling the daily briefing may prove to be Carney’s biggest challenge. While he has ample experience as a talking head, he has never faced the ritualized pummeling that often takes place when things heat up before the cameras.

Here is what he once told me about the Bush administration: “Obviously, like any White House, this White House has come to understand that the telling of the inside story can be useful to them.” Obviously.

“Jay combines the best of both worlds: a career as a leading journalist, and two years as a skilled communications strategist,” says Ron Klain, who recently stepped down as Biden’s chief of staff.

Insiders say Obama’s selection of Carney indicates a desire to use the press secretary’s office to more aggressively disseminate information to the media hordes. As part of Obama’s inner circle, Gibbs doubled as a high-level adviser who was often “in the room,” to use a Washington term, but wasn’t as available as the press demanded and often tried to avoid making news. Carney will serve as more of a hired hand, and his cordial relationships with Beltway pundits may partially compensate for his relative newcomer status in Obama world.

Handling the daily briefing may prove to be Carney’s biggest challenge. While he has ample experience as a talking head, he has never faced the ritualized pummeling that often takes place when things heat up before the cameras.

Carney covered the 2008 campaign and was one of two Time correspondents who conducted a famously prickly interview with John McCain shortly before the Republican convention. (Asked how he would define honor, McCain told them to read his books, and when pressed he said, “No, I’m not going to define it.”)

When Obama picked Delaware’s senior senator as his running mate, Carney said on MSNBC that “Biden may be the answer” because of his foreign-policy credentials. The “downside,” Carney added, is that Biden has said the wrong thing “throughout his career.... He's smart, but he speaks--shoots from the hip and sometimes says just wrong thing at the wrong time.”

Well, that was then. And part of Carney’s job was to fix the problem.

When Biden was put in charge of the $787 billion Recovery Act, Carney and Klain milked the assignment for plenty of good regional press. Last spring, when Dick Cheney was about to appear on This Week to again accuse the administration of being soft on terrorism, Carney’s team—following a meeting in Rahm Emanuel’s office— put the veep on Meet the Press and Face the Nation. Biden stepped on his predecessor’s message by saying he was “not entitled to rewrite history.”

Journalists love access, and Carney and Klain began dishing it out: George Stephanopoulos accompanied Biden on a trip to Iraq, Chris Matthews on a visit to Israel. Nightline did a day-in-the-life feature called “Regular Joe.” Then there was the softer stuff: The Daily Show, The View, a Valentine’s Day appearance on Good Morning America with his wife, Jill.

Daniel Stone: Jay Carney, a More Sympathetic Press SecretaryBack when Bush named McClellan as his spokesman, Carney told me that while the longtime aide was a very pleasant guy, “I wouldn’t expect the press office to become a treasure trove of hot tips.”

That would be good advice for Carney’s ex-colleagues as well. Carney may prove to be a good sparring partner and valuable source, but he’s not about to forget that he’s fronting for the president. He will deflect questions, learn a dozen ways to say no comment—the usual panoply of press secretary tricks. And if he occasionally feels sympathy with those on the outside looking in, he’s likely to keep that to himself.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.