White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs generally arrives at his spacious but unadorned office in the West Wing (he hasn't had time to decorate yet) at 6 a.m. and spends the next 90 minutes reading newspapers, news summaries, and staff memos. At 7:30, he joins a meeting with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other top presidential advisers; at 8:15 he attends a larger senior-staff meeting, including national security officials, and at 8:45, he meets with his press staff. From then on, it's a whirlwind of activity all day, with Gibbs often sitting in on meetings with President Obama, tracking down information for reporters, devising ways of promoting the administration's agenda, preparing for his televised daily briefing, and conducting that briefing on camera in front of four dozen news-hungry journalists. Somewhat to the surprise of the correspondents who didn't know him, Gibbs can be self-deprecating and funny and is almost always genial—at least so far during this honeymoon period for his boss (in contrast to his image during the campaign as an occasionally testy and sharp-edged Obama partisan). In the afternoons, he sometimes nibbles cheese chunks for energy and sips hot tea as a balm for his voice. In an interview, Gibbs, 37, talked at length about his job, the challenges ahead, and President Obama. Excerpts:
The president's economic package passed the House but with no Republican votes. How surprised is the president at this rebuff to his call for bipartisanship?
I don't think he was surprised. I think he was disappointed a little. But I think he understands a little of how the game is played. But that having been said, I think he understands that it's more important to keep trying and not be deterred by bumps along the way. The long haul is more important than any one stop.
President Obama has now met with senior military leaders about Iraq. What was the outcome of those meetings?
I think he felt it was important to go through the process for a number of reasons. He wanted to hear directly from those on the ground and in the region, but I think he also wanted those on the ground and in the region to hear directly from him.
Is the president still committed to withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months?
I think we'll have decisions fairly soon on that.
Is there any reason to believe that the 16 months will slip?
I think that's what the president believes is doable, but I think he wanted to ensure that we went through this process, that we did this to genuinely get their [the military's] input. We want to do this in a way that's safe for our troops and gives the responsibility back to the Iraqis.
After being in office a bit more than a week, how does Obama like being president?
It's taken some getting used to, but I know he loves it. He can have dinner with his family. He can have breakfast with his family, and he's still not late for work. I know in the transition it took a little getting used to. I don't think Michelle is used to seeing him home so often, especially after two years on the road. But as I've said, to live above the company store, it's been a real treat for him. And I think it's great for him to be able to see the girls as often as he's doing now.
What about your first reactions to being press secretary?
I thought this would be a fun job and it's actually more fun that I even thought it was going to be. Now, going with that, the one thing you're never prepared for is the sheer amount of information that you're presented with each and every day.
What is your day like?
I am still trying to get my routine down, being able to get through as much information and process it and understand it so that I can do it in a way that makes some sense when I go stand up in front of all these reporters. I'm usually getting here at about 6 in the morning. You have access to the smartest people in the world, and you can ask them whatever questions you want. And it's a tremendous opportunity to learn and a tremendous opportunity to serve. I've got this sort of dual role. I need to go to enough meetings so that I'm informed as to his [Obama's] thinking so that I can inform you all of that, as well as getting ready. And that's the interesting sweet spot to try to hit.
What have been the new administration's most important decisions so far?
In the executive orders, particularly Gitmo [closing the Guantánamo Bay detention center], and some of this Iraq stuff, I think you've seen the president put together a fairly prudent and deliberate process for how to make decisions going forward, which I think shows a pragmatic streak that not everybody probably thought he had but that he is genuinely somebody who is out to get the job done, not predisposed to how you do that. And I think he's listening to everybody and trying to get the best information he can.
What was it like for President Obama when he entered the Oval Office on his first morning as commander in chief?
We wanted to take a picture of him first coming in there, but then he basically kicked us all out. He wanted 10 minutes just to be in there and think about all that had gone on in there and all that was going to go on in there. I think he had a genuinely true sense of where he was and all of the responsibilities that he'd been given. And I think that was a powerful moment for him.
Did he tell you specifically what was going through his mind?
I went in to ask him just so I could give you guys a readout and he kind of frowned at me and he says, 'Gibbs, I wasn't looking through the drawers looking for pencils' [to take notes]. He was focused on sort of understanding the moment. He was kind of soaking it all in and understanding where he was and what he was elected to do.
Are things much worse now—on the economy, for example—than he expectedwhen he was running for president?
You always learn a little bit more when you get in. And look, I think the economy continues to worsen rather than get better. So I think that always weighs heavily on his mind.
Obama has talked a lot about avoiding isolation as president—avoiding what he calls "the bubble." Now that he's in the job, does he have any other thoughts about how to accomplish that?
I think it's calling people. I think part of it is staying in touch with his routine. He does not want a room full of people that nod their heads every time he opens his mouth. He wants a group of people that are going to push his assumptions. If advisers have differing opinions, he often likes to see them argue it out a little bit, and watch the back and forth, and question each of their assumptions. He doesn't come to this thinking that he has all the answers. He understands that he can learn—he can learn a lot.
Is he awestruck that only 42 other individuals have ever been president of the United States—he has the job once held by the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt?
I don't know if awestruck is the word. I think there is a healthy respect for those that have come before. I think that's part of what he thought about when he sat in that office—how many people but also how few people had been where's he's been. And I don't think you can walk into that place and not feel that, whether it's as the president or whether it's as a staff.
- Read more by Kenneth T. Walsh