Why He Matters
One of the most impressive parts of President Barack Obama’s massive two-year presidential campaign was the surprisingly low number of leaks and campaign in-fighting.
Credit Gibbs. Described as the bad cop to Obama’s good cop, Gibbs is chummy with the media but can aggressively take on a reporter over what he views as a negative or unfair story.
Keeping the president on message isn’t Gibbs' only task as press secretary. After joining Obama’s Senate campaign in 2004 and sticking with him through the four years that followed, Gibbs is also a trusted adviser to Obama, someone who is not afraid to disagree with his boss.(1)
In fact, he is so close to Obama that he is informally known as the “Barack Whisperer.”(2)
Path to Power
Gibbs grew up in Auburn, Ala., and still sports a slight southern accent. His mother was active in the League of Women Voters, and she brought her two sons around the state with her while campaigning. Gibbs was on the debate team in high school and played goalie for the North Carolina State soccer team.(3)
In college, Gibbs interned for then-Rep. Glenn Browder (D-Ala.). Browder ran, unsuccessfully, for the Senate in 1996, and by then, Gibbs had worked his way up to executive assistant. “You could see he was good,” Browder said. “He was good at working the phones and talking with the press. You never had to push Robert. He could work 24 hours a day.”(4)
Gibbs worked for Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) in 1997 and helped then-Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) win re-election in 1998, before moving to the office of then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) in 1999. In 2000, he helped Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) steal the competitive Senate seat held by then-incumbent Sen. Spence Abraham (R). That got him noticed by Jim Jordan, the former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), who brought him on board as DSCC press secretary for the 2002 election cycle.
In 2003, Jordan recruited him as Sen. John F. Kerry’s (D-Mass.) press secretary as Kerry was exploring his presidential run. But in November 2003, Gibbs quit, along with deputy finance director Carl Chidlow, after Kerry fired campaign manager Jim Jordan two months before the Iowa caucuses.(5) At the time, Kerry said, “My campaign will be better off moving ahead with people who want to be here,” but he later called Gibbs, Chidlow and Jordan to apologize for that comment.(6) Afterwards, Gibbs worked as a spokesperson for an Ohio-based Democratic group that sponsored ads attacking Howard Dean’s foreign policy experience in commercials featuring Osama bin Laden.(7)
Gibbs ended up joining Obama’s 2004 senate campaign instead, and has stuck with his boss ever since. By all accounts, he was one of Obama’s closest friends on the campaign trail, talking about their kids and sports as well as policy. "I promised myself I would only do this again for somebody I had a really good relationship with," Gibbs has said.(8)
Gibbs advises Obama on policy, but his main job is to control the message. The Chicago Tribune described him as a bulldog with “Northern ruthlessness and Southern charm combined.”(9)
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Gibbs was the go-to guy for TV interviews and knew how to tackle his questioners. When Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked Gibbs whether Obama’s association with former Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers made him “guilty by association,” Gibbs fired back, asking whether having an anti-Semite on his show made Hannity anti-Semitic.(9)
But Gibbs has more access to his boss than a typical aide. After Obama joined the Senate in 2005, Gibbs stuck by his side, helping to construct a coherent message with one eye on the future. “Gibbs is no shrinking violet,” Obama biographer David Mendell said. “He is the bad cop to Obama’s good cop. He is the guy who goes out and fights with the reporters who haven’t given his guy good coverage. He is pugnacious. He can be charming, as well, with a handshake and a smile while he is manipulating things behind your back that you don’t see occurring.”(10)
During the 2008 campaign, for instance, Gibbs had reporters seething when he locked down the campaign airplane with reporters aboard and flew to Chicago while Obama met with his rival in the presidential primary, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), in Washington.
Gibbs was supposed to leave Obama after the primary and work from the campaign’s Chicago headquarters during the general election, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the senator’s side.(11)
Gibbs is best known for being incredibly close to Obama. When Gibbs and his wife were trying to go to dinner during a vacation in Hawaii, Obama insisted they drop their 5-year-old son off with him.(12)
While working on Capitol Hill, Gibbs helped Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) get elected in 2000 and briefly helped Sen. John F. Kerry during his 2004 run for the White House. He stuck by campaign manager Jim Jordan, the former executive director of the DSCC when Gibbs was the spokesman, and quit Kerry’s campaign after Jordan was fired.
“The O-List; the 30 people who matter most in Obama’s Washington – in order,” The New Republic, Nov. 6, 2008
Kurtz, Howie, “A Spokesman so Close, He’s the Barack Whisperer," The Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2008
Barratt, Barbara, “NC’s Robert Gibbs may be Obama press secretary,” McClatchy Newspapers, Nov. 6, 2008
Gordon, Robert K., “Auburn native Robert Gibbs expected to be named Obama press secretary,” The Birmingham News (Ala.), Nov. 7, 2008
Peirce, Greg, “Campaign in disarray,” The Washington Times, Nov. 12, 2003
“Kerry: We’re confused is this day four or day five of this one-day story,” The Hotline, Nov. 14, 2003
Malone, Julia, “Group ends round of attack ads on Dean,” Cox News Service, Dec. 18, 2003
“Robert Gibbs, quick with a punch line, the media chief lifts the candidate’s mood,” Newsweek, May 19, 2008
Christi Parsons, John McCormick and Mike Dorning, “Obama sends a message; selecting hardball players for team signals he knows the reality of D.C. politics,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 7, 2008
Brown, Carrie Budoff, “Little Shock in selection of Gibbs,” Politico, Nov. 7, 2008
“The New Team: Robert Gibbs,” The New York Times
Christensen, Rob, “Obama’s shadow does politics, sports and comedy,” Charlotte Observer (N.C.), Aug. 26, 2008