Today is Jay Carney’s second day on the job, and for the second day he is not scheduled to brief. And it’s little wonder. I’ve never seen a new press secretary – particularly one with so little public relations background and no experience doing the daily White House briefing – dropped into the job at such an inopportune moment.
Obama decided to hold a press conference today, giving Jay an excuse to sit out another briefing.
“I figured that I’d give Jay one more taste of freedom before we lock him in a room with all of you,” the president wisecracked. “So I’m here to do a little down field blocking for him.”
But the concerns about putting Carney on the field must be real. The novice spokesman will want to make sure he’s completely ready, and his bosses probably don’t mind keeping him on ice for awhile.
Carney for years was a mere reporter and only began flacking two years ago when he took the job of cleaning up Vice President Biden’s various communications crises. So while it’s been a busy two years for him, it’s still only been two years.
And now he’s got the world’s most important PR job. And the world is not making it easy.
The annual battle of the budget began just Monday, a critical period in which Republicans and the White House will joust over spending levels, cuts, and a myriad of programs. With President Obama’s budget having just been released Monday, Carney is sure to be called on to explain some decisions with as much painful detail as he can offer – all while staying attuned to the politics of the issue.
He can’t simply say, “the president believes this is a good program.” He has to say: “The president believes this is a good program and Republicans suck for wanting to cut it and are generally evil people,” – but all while not seeming to “divisively” criticize Republicans.
But far worse is the escalating situation in the Middle East, where incipient revolutions threaten key U.S. allies and one of our worst foes, Iran. Jay, in his first podium experience, will suddenly find himself with the power to completely screw up U.S. foreign policy and ignite choruses of angry ululating throughout the Arab world.
Monday, from the Upper Press area, where the press secretary’s office sits, the sound of someone wailing “Why me?” and “What was I thinking?” and “I’d rather have my foot amputated than go out there” could be heard.
OK, maybe he was saying something else, like “What’s for lunch?” Whatever.
Senior White House aides will have to decide whether to send Carney out with a few scripted lines from which he must not budge, or to give him some leeway to improvise.
The dilemma is that if they do the former, his reviews will be bad, and first impressions can’t always easily be erased. He’ll be seen as senior adviser David Plouffe’s darling little puppet. But if they choose the latter, they risk a catastrophe.