Gibbs' departure begins retooling of Obama's staff

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 5, 2011 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's departing chief spokesman said Wednesday that a "pretty major retooling" of White House staff will unfold over the next several weeks, giving Obama needed "different and fresh perspectives" as he enters the second half of his four-year term.

"As a president you can't take a year off to recharge," Gibbs, 39, a member of Obama's tight-knit inner circle, told reporters just hours after announcing his own plans to leave the White House by early next month. He said he'll assist Obama in his re-election efforts but that the time was right for him to return to private life, spend more time with his family and recharge.

There is "a bubble in here to some degree," Gibbs said of presidential life, an inescapable creep of insularity. "So I think it's important to put people around him that have the fresh perspective, that have come into a different job or have come into the administration after having not been here for a couple of years."

More big changes are expected within a matter of days.

A new economic adviser to replace Larry Summers is to be named Friday, Gibbs said. A frontrunner for that post has been Gene Sperling, who did that job for President Bill Clinton. He now advises Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

On Monday, Obama's 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe will join the White House team, while senior adviser David Axelrod, who's shaped the White House's communications message along with Gibbs, will ease out and turn to shaping the re-election campaign from Chicago.

Within days, Obama also could name a permanent chief of staff to replace Rahm Emanuel, who left in the fall to run for mayor in Chicago.

Obama aide Pete Rouse has been running the staff in an interim capacity, but as Obama looks to improve relations with business executives and boost Americans' confidence in his economic policies, the most serious outside candidate to emerge is William Daley, a J.P. Morgan Chase executive, former Clinton commerce secretary and member of the Chicago political family.

Gibbs' successor, who's expected to start next month, hasn't been named. Some of Gibbs' deputies are among those being considered as potential replacements, as is Vice President Joe Biden's top spokesman, Jay Carney, a former Time magazine journalist.

The midpoint of a president's first term is a natural transition time for staff in high-burnout jobs who are physically and mentally tired, have peaked in terms of usefulness, miss their families or want to go make money or try something new.

Gibbs said his decision to leave isn't connected to Democrats' losses in last year's midterm elections. Gibbs angered some of Obama's liberal base with his dismissive criticism of the "professional left," but was regarded as a serious press secretary in the sense that he was in the room with Obama and top aides for key meetings and able to speak with authority about the president's mindset — even if he often refrained from disclosing as much as he knew.

Martha Kumar, a Towson University professor and expert on presidential communications operations, said a two-year tenure is fairly typical for a modern press secretary, whose daily appearance in televised briefings gives him a high profile and often makes him a lightning rod.

Gibbs, an Alabama native and North Carolina State University alum who's worked for Obama since his 2004 Senate campaign, said he'll advise and promote Obama's re-election effort and make some money on the public speaking circuit. He said he may take on corporate clients but doesn't expect to work for any political candidates beyond Obama.

Obama "seems like a pretty good one to stop on," Gibbs said. He joked that he's angling to eventually become Obama's U.S. ambassador to Italy.

While Obama campaigned in 2008 in part on the need to change Washington's culture of revolving-door politics, the president didn't take issue with Gibbs' plans to parlay his experience into private-sector money.

He called Gibbs "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" and said it was "natural for him to want to step back, reflect and retool."

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