Well, the White House sure knew what it was doing.
In his debut performance from the White House briefing room podium, Jay Carney sounded like he’d been press secretary for about six years.
He was smooth and unruffled – not that most of the questions were of the caliber that might ruffle. He threw in a little bit of humor. He spoke briskly and in complete sentences. He did well on his feet when confronted with questions he probably didn’t prepare for.
And – this is most important – he didn’t make any news he didn’t want to make. That is, he responded to questions, but didn’t necessarily answer them.
Carney was a long-time Washington journalist before entering the PR game only two years ago as Vice President Biden’s chief spokesman. But one highly placed source has told me that Carney was recently disassembled at a press secretary factory in Bridgeport, Conn., and put back together with the proper parts and technology included.
Well, at the very least, he appears to have digested and perfected the lines he heard so, so many times from the flacks he had to deal with all those years he was a reporter.
Asked for a specific time period for getting entitlement reform done, he said, “I think this is a process.”
Asked which business executives Obama will meet with tomorrow during a visit to the West Coast, he offered the classic “We’ll release a list when we have it to give it to you.”
He had at the ready the standard “I’m not going to negotiate from the podium” when queried about specifics of Obama’s views on Social Security and spending cuts.
He hauled out a classic from former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs when things got into too much detail on the deficit: “I’m not an economist.”
He punted to other agencies, so that they could refuse to answer off camera, referring questioners to OMB, the State Department, and the Department of Transportation.
He remembered to blame Bush for stuff: “I also remind you that we inherited – when this administration came into office, this president came into office in enormous debt that had been piled up in the previous eight years, and that is part of the problem.”
When asked about President Obama’s statement that Social Security talks should be done in private even though during the campaign Obama seemed to think – specifically on health care – that this type of negotiation should be handled in the light of day on C-Span, Carney improvised.
“I don’t think the president said that every discussion about entitlement reform would be held in private.”
If he didn’t like a question, he answered one he would have preferred but didn’t get. Asked if Obama was going to politicize this spending debate, he replied, “It needs to be civil and it needs to be reasonable.” Which of course doesn’t rule out political. No one pressed him.
The only mistake was on a question about CBS News reporter Lara Logan’s brutal rape in Egypt. He should have done a lot, lot better than this.
As you know, during those events, the 18 days, the President made clear that our position was violence was unacceptable, and that — specifically harassment, detention — violence against journalists was unacceptable, and that the perpetrators of violence needed to be held accountable. And that remains our position.
Carney and whoever helped him prepare this statement ought to be ashamed. If it was off the cuff, then Carney needs to learn to project some compassion and outrage.
But overall, as a professional matter, an excellent performance. Carney was under extreme pressure, and he pulled through. Even made it look easy.
In terms of a breakthrough for the kind of openness Obama once promised, not so excellent. Several reporters afterward seemed a little spooked that they wouldn’t be any more able to pry open this locked box of information than they were the last one.
“Same answers, different guy,” remarked one.
I’m sure the White House could not be more pleased.