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When a CBS correspondent reported last month that Barack Obama’s campaign had a malodorous airplane and a dismissive attitude toward the media, Robert Gibbs, the candidate’s top spokesman, was not pleased.
“Robert wrote a rather tendentious note to me,” Dean Reynolds says. “He would get in your face, not in a very heated way, but he would question your stories.”
Gibbs, who transition officials say is in line to become White House press secretary, can be funny, gossipy and an invaluable source of information about his boss, journalists say. He also monitors coverage intensively, pushing back against the smallest blog post he considers inaccurate.
“This is not someone who stays above the fray,” Newsweek reporter Richard Wolffe says. “His manner allows him to do tough stuff in a softer way. He could deliver a harsh message, but do it with a little sense of humor, so you’d feel punched in the stomach but not in the face.”
Asked about complaints that he retaliated against reporters who were deemed unfair, Gibbs invokes the pressure of the campaign. “In hindsight, there are discussions I had in the heat of the moment that if I had to do over again, you would do differently,” he says. “I don’t doubt there’s countless episodes you would go back and do over again. I think you do better when you treat people with respect. There were a couple of times that I flew off the handle.”
Now the sparring will take place in the glare of televised briefings. After a career spent working for Democratic candidates and lawmakers, the 37-year-old Alabama native is about to become the public face of the Obama administration.
While he can be combative in private, Gibbs is affable and smooth-talking on camera, often deflecting uncomfortable questions with a quip. Colleagues say Gibbs channels the president-elect in a way that goes beyond their shared passion for college football. Obama had an initial tendency to overanswer questions, but Gibbs has taught him how to pivot back to his scripted point.
“He’s the last person Barack talks to when he’s thinking about how to handle reporters’ questions,” says Linda Douglass, a campaign spokeswoman. “We call him the Barack Whisperer. He completely understands his thinking and knows how Barack wants to come across.”
That quality was not lost on journalists covering the highly disciplined campaign. “A huge asset that Robert has is that he’s in the room with the president-elect,” says Jake Tapper, ABC’s senior White House correspondent. “He has his trust and his ear. He’s not just a press flunky who gets handed a piece of paper with talking points.”
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Mr Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said yesterday that the plight of automakers was one of a number of issues discussed in a two-hour meeting with Mr Bush to discuss the transfer of power at a time of war and financial crisis. Other issues included housing, mortgage foreclosures, and, more generally, “the need to get the economy back on track”.
The parlous state of the American car industry was highlighted last Friday when General Motors – the biggest US car manufacturer – reported a $2.5 billion net loss for the third quarter, bringing its total losses to nearly $57 billion since the beginning of 2005.
Ford Motor Company’s $129 million quarterly loss, meanwhile, brought to nearly $24.5 billion the deficit it has run up since plunging into the red in 2006. The privately-held Chrysler LLC is also thought to be fast running out of cash – one reason, analysts believe, why its parent, Cerberus Capital Management, was so eager to sell Chrysler to General Motors.
The New York Times, citing unnamed people familiar with the discussion, said that Mr Obama went into his post-election meeting with Mr Bush primed to urge him to support emergency aid for the car industry.
The Bush Administration is reluctant to give carmakers access to the bailout fund, even though the Democrats say it could legally do so.
Linking the issue with the Colombia free trade deal could delay any move until after Mr Obama’s inauguration on January 20. US union leaders oppose the agreement because of numerous murders of trade unionists in Colombia at the hands of right-wing paramilitary squads closely linked to the Colombian armed forces.