Press Breaks In New Guy on the Podium

The White House press secretary may have one of the toughest jobs in Washington.

Even if only dodging verbal rounds, the press secretary has a ceremonial flak jacket hanging in the closet in the West Wing office, left by a predecessor as a reminder of the constant barrage from the media.

President Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, made his debut behind the White House lectern Thursday before a standing room-only crowd of reporters eager to get their first shot at him.

The charged atmosphere in the briefing room Thursday had changed completely from the sleepy press briefings of the final days of the Bush administration.

Toward the end of the second Bush term, press secretary Dana Perino's briefings were sparsely attended and usually lasted 20 minutes. There were even empty seats in the back rows for the final news conference by then-President Bush on Jan. 12.

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But Thursday the room was already starting to fill up 20 minutes before the curtain went up for the premiere of the Gibbs show, with photographers staking out positions and reporters jostling to situate themselves within the new press secretary's line of sight. Reporters from Fox News and CNN gave live reports as the din in the briefing room grew louder and efforts to shush the crowd were unsuccessful.

Fresh Start = Packed House

Several veteran White House reporters said the packed house is common for the beginning of a new administration, as reporters eager for a fresh new story angle get to know the new press secretary.

"Everybody wants to be in on the action. It's opening day at the ballgame," said CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante, who is covering his fifth administration and was in the CBS News White House booth at the end of both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

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"The last couple of weeks of an eight-year administration, there's not a lot to say because the president deliberately didn't do a whole lot, didn't do any new initiatives, didn't do much to make headlines like say the Clinton pardons, so it was relatively quiet," Plante said. "For the new administration's first briefing, there are a lot of expectations: What will the press secretary be like, what will his demeanor be, how responsive will he be to questions?"

American Urban Radio Network's April Ryan said the packed briefing room reminded her of the briefings during the Monica Lewinsky days during the Clinton administration or the first briefing by former Bush press secretary and former Fox News anchor Tony Snow.

Obama Offers Positive Reviews

Gibbs' debut received decent reviews from several of the tough critics in the White House press corps -- and a solid endorsement from the boss.

"We were all watching on TV with anticipation of, you know, some flop sweat, but he handled it and I'm very proud of him," President Obama told reporters during a surprise visit to the press area late Thursday afternoon. "He got a fist bump from me."

The room had not changed since Perino's last briefing. The placard on the lectern simply read "The White House" -- no hint that a new resident had moved in.

Though the scheduled start time was 1:30 p.m., the briefing began 10 minutes late with all 49 seats in the narrow briefing room full. The side aisles were jammed with people standing two to three deep. As the total attendance in the room reached about 150 people, not to mention bulky cameras and hot television lights, the room grew warmer.

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