There have been a few names kicked around, but the smart money is on Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, and with the announcement sure to come within days, this is a good time to get to know the man who is likely to take over Gibbs’ podium. To that end, we’ve got some background, plus my own observations, and a little bit of chatter from around the White House Press Corps.
In my view, the greatest advantage to Bill Burton as Gibbs’ successor is that he is prepared. I don’t just mean that as it pertains to his experience, although in the past two years, he’s gotten plenty of on the job training conducting briefings in Gibbs’ stead. This sentiment was echoed by former Bush Deputy White House Press Secretary Tony Fratto, who says, “I think he would do a terrific job for the President. My sense is he’s well-liked and respected both within the White House and among the press corps. Also, there’s always a steep learning curve with that job, and Bill is as prepared for it as anyone can be.”
One of the hallmarks of Gibbs’ briefings, though, is preparation, the commission of President Obama’s policies and positions to second nature, rather than hemming and hawing over a stack of papers. Burton is in the same mold, a spokesperson whose knowledge of the issues is intimate enough to respond with true authority.
That authority is crucial to the job of press secretary, because it gives reporters confidence that they’ll be able to get answers that they couldn’t already read in a press release.
As Deputy Press Secretary, Burton has tended toward a slightly more concise style than Gibbs, which is sure to delight those of us who reside in the outlying rows. When he has conducted briefings over the past two years, Burton has typically gotten much deeper into the back rows than normal. Daily Caller’s Jon Ward observes of Burton:
I think many reporters have been pleased to date with Bill’s no nonsense, respectful and efficient briefings. He often keeps his answers short and doesn’t wax eloquent, which is a good thing because it allows for more follow ups. Plus, he’s been willing to call on a broad variety of reporters, moving well beyond the first three rows.
As Press Secretary, though, that could change somewhat, as the questioning might become more pointed.
Former Fox News Senior White House Correspondent Major Garrett, now at National Journal, had this to say of Burton:
Burton was and remains a crucial part of Robert’s approach to moving information and shaping the president’s message once it is developed. His approach at the podium is snappier than Robert’s and he delivers what the administration has to say more rapidly in part, I think, because, unlike Robert, he is not as burdened by all of the knowledge of how crucial policy decisions are made. Robert was more central to that process than many people may realize or appreciate. That made him rare among press secretaries. Robert was not only plugged in he was part of the wiring. If Bill ascends to this position, he may not enjoy that kind of access. I don’t know. But it comes with disadvantages. Bill is just as stout as Robert in defending the president and calling out reporters who he or Robert believes have taken a cheap shot. And he knows the message and shaping strategies of the White House as well as anyone.
Gibbs’ personal closeness to the President has been a blessing, according to Gibbs, but another White House reporter, who preferred not to be named so he could be candid in his views, made an important point about that. “(Burton)’s a smart, loyal, affable guy who’d be an asset to the president. Obviously he doesn’t have the closeness to the president that Gibbs does, but none of the possible replacements do. He’s briefed dozens of times so far and has done well.”
Members of the White House press corps shared some of their thoughts on Bill Burton’s possible ascension with Mediaite. CBS Radio News’ Mark Knoller told us:
Burton is a professional who makes an effort to be helpful to reporters. But there’s no doubt his top loyalty is to Pres. Obama and not the press.
Burton has also shown himself to be an agile spokesman when conducting on-the-record press briefings. He knows Obama’s policies and can speak authoritatively. But he also understands the press and what we need.
Burton also has a good sense of humor about the White House relationship with the press – an essential quality for someone who might serve as Press Secretary.
NBC News’ Senior White House Correspondent Chuck Todd says Burton is “sharp, likeable and responsive,” important qualities from a reporter’s perspective. Although I have never experienced it, other reporters have complained of long stints in other press secretaries’ doghouses, but Burton, in my experience, doesn’t take things personally, and has the rare ability to be both friendly and frank.
At 33 years old, Burton’s youth is an advantage when it comes to leveraging technology to share information, already a strength of this administration, but without the disadvantage of inexperience. A native of Buffalo, NY, Burton followed his graduation from the University of Minnesota by moving to Washington, DC, as a staffer for Rep. Bill Luther (D-Mn), and in 2001, began a two-year stint as press secretary for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
In 2003, Burton worked on Dick Gephardt‘s presidential campaign, switching to John Kerry‘s campaign after Gephardt dropped out. It was during the 2004 campaign that Burton met future wife Laura Capps, becoming one of several meet-cute romances that dot the current Obama fold.
Following Kerry’s losing presidential bid, Burton took the communications director post at the DCCC, then headed by future Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Then, in 2007, Burton joined then-Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, as national press secretary, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bill Burton’s experience and competence make him the natural choice to succeed Gibbs, especially for a White House that really doesn’t need to miss a beat at this point. This is going to be a tough year for the Obama administration, and they could sure use a proven steady hand at that podium. While as Deputy Press Secretary, Burton has been a relatively low-key presence when conducting briefings, he might surprise people in his new role. Anyone who remembers the 2008 campaign knows that Burton can slug it out with the best of them. This is, perhaps, best exemplified in this clip, in which he takes on tough-as-nails Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly:
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