WASHINGTON (AP) — Josh Earnest comes to the job of White House press secretary with a reputation for Midwestern affability and a style of relating to the media that's more honey and less vinegar.
Earnest officially takes over Monday after several years as the chief deputy, but on Friday he handled the daily briefing, the most prominent and high-stakes part of the job. The 39-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri, succeeds Jay Carney at a challenging time in Barack Obama's presidency. Obama's job-approval ratings are at new lows and more criticism of his performance is expected this election year.
As news organizations increasingly turn their interest more to the race to replace Obama in 2016, Earnest faces the challenge of drawing attention to the president's agenda and helping shape the lasting impression Obama will leave after a bruising start to his second term.
Earnest said in an interview he wants to make sure the White House is responding quickly to critics and making a more effective counter-argument. "It's our responsibility to marshal evidence in a way that allows independent journalists to accurately describe the president's priorities and, when necessary, explain why the critics are wrong," Earnest said. "The daily briefing gives us a unique, high-profile opportunity to make the case, and I'm looking forward to making the most of it."
His style is a departure from the often combative interactions of his predecessors, Carney and Robert Gibbs. Both were known as pugnacious Obama defenders; Earnest has a reputation for working more cooperatively with the press to advocate for his boss.
In his briefing Friday, he quickly moved to a reporter in a back row, addressing a long-running complaint from some in the press corps that the briefing is too focused on the network and wire reporters in the front.
He also made a wisecrack in response to a question about Obama creating a task force to promote the health of honey bees. "When I walked out here today I knew I was going to be handling a range of sensitive issues. I didn't know I would be talking about the birds and the bees."
The media erupted in a chorus of groans. A smiling Earnest replied, "You would think that I would get a better crowd on my first day." Earnest's selection has some similarities to the choice of Dana Perino as President George W. Bush's last press secretary. She was a No. 2 with a reputation for responsiveness to reporters who brought a more cordial style to the podium at the end of an administration.
"Maybe President Obama recognized that a change of tone wouldn't be a bad thing," she said of Earnest's selection. Earnest first went to work for Obama as communications director for his momentous 2008 victory in the Iowa caucuses.
The president, who tends to be most comfortable promoting trusted aides who've been with him from the start, said he and Earnest share an "incredible history going all the way back to the Iowa caucuses." He requested of reporters, "Be nice to Josh during his initiation, which I'm sure will last maybe two days — or perhaps two questions."
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