President Obama’s poll numbers are now languishing at the 40 percent mark – the lowest of his presidency. Given his low approval ratings and the tumultuous U.S. economy, he desperately needs a press secretary who can help advance his message as he enters what will surely be a bruising campaign.
Jay Carney, who has been on the job since February, is not that person.
Mr. Carney seems incapable of parrying successfully with the press. He regularly appears outmatched by reporters and fails to take control of the interaction when presented an easy opportunity to do so. He takes questions too literally, gets bogged down in the details, and fumbles to find his way to a higher-level response. He stammers, shifts his eyes uncomfortably, licks his lips, and loads his delivery with “uhhs,” “umms” “I thinks,” and “you knows.”
He sounds timid, looks uncomfortable, and comes across more like an eager student than an experienced spokesperson capable of advancing President Obama’s agenda.
As an example, here’s a video of his press briefing from last Wednesday:
Several times throughout the briefing, Mr. Carney actually read his answers to reporters directly from a briefing book. While reading, he didn’t make eye contact with the press, nor did he forge any connection with the viewers at home. His role was completely superfluous – if he’s just going to read documents to the press, he may as well hand them out and let the reporters read the material for themselves.
Even when delivering a solid television-friendly sound bite, he undercuts his effectiveness with his own verbal filler (at 9:29):
“This President will not rest until he is uhhh confident that every American who uhhh wants a job can find a job. And uhhh there is no greater focus of his work uhhh of this Administration’s work uhhh than the economy.”
In a February article in Politico, former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said:
“It’s become a TV show. It’s really not the real substance of the relationship between the press corps and the spokesman. The real work is done 20 times a day when reporters walk into your office, close the door and talk one on one with you.”
That may be true on the substance, but millions of viewers watch the live briefing or catch excerpts on television, online, and on the radio. Mr. Fleischer underestimates the importance of Mr. Carney’s public role, given that he is arguably second only to the President in visibility. If Carney is truly terrific behind closed doors, the White House should keep him in the background and appoint a separate person to handle on-camera briefings.
Mr. Carney seems like a genuinely nice man who is trying hard to get this right. But he’s the wrong person for the job. If you believe as I do that presidents deserve to be served by spokespersons that represent them well, Mr. Carney has got to go.
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