Jan. 23, 2009 — -- 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.
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.
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.
"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.
Adhering to tradition, Gibbs took his first question from The Associated Press' Jennifer Loven, who asked about the executive order that Obama had signed on interrogations. Questions about the executive order closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay took up a large chunk of the briefing.
Gibbs also addressed the do-over swearing-in at the White House Wednesday night, TARP funds and the buzz-worthy "Barackberry," the president's new souped-up, security-enhanced mobile communications device that will allow him to remain in contact with senior staff and a small group of friends.
"[A]lmost as exciting as the presidential dog. … Oh, everybody's stirring," Gibbs said jokingly when the briefing turned to the topic of the Blackberry.
Gibbs Breaks His Own Rule
Gibbs chose his words carefully and did not rush to answer any question, lest he get tripped up and say too much.
Gibbs deftly dodged one question about what President Obama was going to announce when he traveled to the State Department this afternoon: "I learned long ago not to get in the way of the principal as he's about to make news."
His only slip-up? Gibbs broke his own rules concerning an earlier briefing for reporters that was not on the record.
Before Gibbs' lectern debut, the White House arranged for a senior administration official to brief reporters on the Guantanamo Bay and interrogation executive orders President Obama had signed Thursday. The White House declared this briefing "on background," meaning reporters could not use the official's name in their stories.
But Gibbs did just that, referring to the senior official by his first name Greg six times during his on-the-record and on-camera briefing.
A reporter asked whether Gibbs' candor with the name Greg meant the background rules or the earlier briefing had been lifted.
"Are we allowed to repeat that name?"
"I'm tempted to ask you to see if you can get one person's name into the papers so people will think he might be a Brazilian soccer star," Gibbs said jokingly.
Forty-nine minutes and more than 60 questions later, Gibbs wrapped it up. As he turned to walk off the small stage, he was asked about the overcapacity crowd.
"We should sell tickets and have the money go to the deficit or something," he remarked as he exited stage right.
ABC News' Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.