WASHINGTON — Robert Gibbs, the feisty press secretary whose job as President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman and confidant has given him an outsized presence at the White House, announced Wednesday he was quitting for the less demanding, more lucrative role of giving paid speeches and advising the president from the outside world.
In a rapidly unfolding makeover, Obama was also closing in on a decision whether to tap William Daley, a former commerce secretary, for the vital gatekeeping job of White House chief of staff. Obama and Daley met at the White House on Wednesday, and a presidential decision on that position was expected within days.
The changes means Obama is resetting his presidency as core members of his team head for the door, with senior adviser David Axelrod soon to follow and uncertainty looming over who will permanently replace Rahm Emanuel, another defining figure who quit as the top White House manager three months ago to run for Chicago mayor.
Obama aides are promising stability, particularly as former campaign manager David Plouffe joins the senior staff on Monday, but even Gibbs acknowledged what’s happening is a "pretty major retooling."
"It’s a good time to get some fresh voices, including somebody up here," Gibbs said from his familiar perch behind the White House briefing room lectern.
The crowd for his question and answer session with reporters was bigger than normal — the news media and Gibbs’ staff members packed the room after word had gotten out about his decision. But otherwise, it was a classic Gibbs briefing: a bit late in starting and then filled with winding answers, stern defenses of the president’s policies and wisecracks with his questioners.
As attention centers on the new Congress, Obama is installing the leadership that will help define his agenda, the way he cooperates with or combats Republicans and his re-election style. Of all the faces coming and going, Gibbs is perhaps the one best known to America from his nonstop appearances on television and his forays into social media like Twitter.
Obama is now deciding whether to stick with his respected, below-the-radar Pete Rouse as chief of staff, or bring in Daley, a banking executive who’s more comfortable in front of the cameras. That decision appears largely to be a matter of whether Rouse, the interim chief, wants to stay on for another two years.
A combination of internal fatigue and a demand to shift people to the 2012 re-election campaign effort is fueling all the personnel changes. The president is expected on Friday to name a new top economic adviser, likely Treasury official Gene Sperling. And no matter who serves as chief of staff, both deputy chiefs of staff, Jim Messina and Mona Sutphen, are to leaving soon. As for Gibbs, he has been at Obama’s side since 2004, when Obama had not yet become a U.S. senator from Illinois. His career has soared along with Obama’s, and his friendship and trust with the president has given him a profile that went far beyond the already consuming job of spokesman.
Few people in the West Wing know how Obama thinks as well as Gibbs does.
"I think it’s natural for him to want to step back, reflect and retool," Obama said in a statement. "That brings up some challenges and opportunities for the White House, but it doesn’t change the important role that Robert will continue to play on our team."
Gibbs is expected to leave by early February. The White House has let it be known that the top three candidates for the jobs are two of Gibbs’ deputies, Bill Burton and Josh Earnest, and Jay Carney, a former journalist who has served for the past two years as Vice President Joe Biden’s communications director.
Anita Dunn, the former communications director under Obama, said Gibbs’ exit means the White House was losing "institutional memory, a keen strategist, a witty if occasionally acerbic spokesperson, and a passionate defender of the president’s values." But, she added, "He’s not going far."
Gibbs will remain a part of Obama’s inner circle, setting up shop nearby the White House in the same office that Plouffe, himself an outside counselor to Obama, will be vacating. Axelrod, too, will still be a top adviser to Obama when he leaves the White House in a few weeks.
Gibbs is also expected to be a paid consultant to Obama’s re-election campaign. He has not ruled out returning to the White House should Obama win a second term.
Some of the contours of his new job are not known. Gibbs would not say whether he would represent corporate clients as an adviser. But he did say Obama is his last political client. As a speechmaker, Gibbs’ value may never be higher than right after he leaves the White House. Those familiar with the industry say he likely could command $20,000 to $40,000 per speech in his first year out. He could easily dwarf the $172,000 salary he makes at the White House.
To the reporters who spar with Gibbs regularly, his inside knowledge about Obama’s thinking could help provide reliable detail. But Gibbs has often frustrated the media too by being hard to reach by phone or e-mail and failing to follow up in organized ways. He is known as a big personality who can be affable but also sarcastic and short in his dealings with the press.
He has also at times tried to cut the tension, including one hot day when he agreed to sit in a dunk tank on the South Lawn. Two reporters sank him in the cold water with their throws. The sheer pace of the White House over the past two years, on top of the long campaign season in 2007 and 2008, has many of Obama’s top staffers looking for relief.
Over the past few weeks, it had been widely expected in the West Wing that Gibbs would leave the podium to be an internal counselor or head off to the private world. His son, Ethan, is now seven years old, which about covers the time the spokesman has been with Obama.
Said Gibbs: "There’s a little boy who probably needs a ride to school every now and then."