Understanding the new “comms” team and how we, at the Washington Monthly, report on the White House
The announcement of Joe Biden’s White House communications team caused a certain frisson. It marks the first time women will hold all of the “comms” jobs—press secretary, White House communications director, and others. Jen Psaki will be White House press secretary and Kate Bedingfield will be White House communications director. Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser on the Biden campaign, who was chief of staff to Kamala Harris, will serve as principal deputy press secretary. Symone Sanders, a senior Biden adviser on the campaign, will be a senior adviser and chief spokesperson for the vice president. Ashley Etienne will serve as the vice president’s communications director. Elizabeth Alexander will serve as communications director for First Lady Jill Biden.
They may be barrier breakers but don’t judge them on their gender. Judge them by their record. Each has an enviable amount of experience. And they’re used to working with each other—just like the Biden administration national security appointments announced last week. None is a newcomer to Democratic politics. You’ve probably seen one or many of them on television, including Psaki, who was the State Department spokesperson as well as Jean-Pierre, the deputy campaign manager for Martin O’Malley’s short-lived 2016 presidential bid, and Sanders who served as Bernie Sanders (no relation) press secretary in 2016. They all know what they’re doing, and they have a boss who will let them do it, which is not what you would say about their Trumpian predecessors. Recall how Sean Spicer set the tone for four years of madness when he took the podium in 2017, shortly after the new president was sworn in, and claimed that Donald Trump commanded a bigger inaugural audience than Barack Obama. Things only got nuttier under Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham, and Kayleigh McEnany as they played to an audience of one.
Psaki’s training as State Department spokesman is among the best. The words you use from the podium at Foggy Bottom, like those you’d employ at Treasury or the White House, are hung on anxiously. Anyone who’s watched a State briefing knows that it requires a huge command of facts from a diverse, knowledgeable, sometimes laughably mono-focused press corps. Some of those facts can be had from the giant notebook that each State Department spokesperson has at the dais so they don’t make a faux pas regarding the Law of the Sea treaty or the latest from South Sudan or Swiss chocolate tariffs. The job requires knowledge and poise under pressure, and no briefing book can give you that: You don’t want to depend on notes when it comes to Iran or NATO or Beijing. Like Mike McCurry, Clinton’s press secretary and arguably the best of White House spokesman of this generation, Psaki went through the gauntlet at State.
The group has made a career in Democratic politics, having worked for Obama in various capacities. Psaki’s resume includes State and a stint as White House Communications Director, comms for former Rep. Joe Crowley, the New York Democrat ousted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and going back to John Kerry’s 2004 bid.
Experience is good news. The bad news for these new comms appointees is that the Biden honeymoon will end soon. And it will end hard. Anyone who knows the hothouse that is the White House Briefing Room knows that Biden’s adoring press will evaporate once Trump has left the building.
Covering the White House has changed a lot since I became a newly-minted White House correspondent at the start of the Clinton administration. (I covered the White House correspondent for U.S. News, The New Republic, and Time.) The news cycle is, of course, faster. The mainstream media no longer sets the agenda as assuredly as it once did. Entire giants of the industry like the newsweeklies—I worked for three of them—are no longer outsized agenda setters. But what hasn’t changed for administrations, left and right, is the need to “feed the beast,” keeping the press sated with storylines and managing them when they break news and grow ornery.
The best way to manage the end of the honeymoon? Feed the beast tried and true staples: access and truth. The press can countenance spin and evasion, not deliberate falsehoods. Opening up more briefings by senior officials entails risk. It requires the press secretary to advocate for the press, which is not always easy internally. A supple understanding of what each press constituency needs makes a big difference. The radio folk need sound—and plenty of it. The TV types need to be seen on camera asking questions. Print needs short and long-term stories.
Here’s an example of how not to do it: Early in the Clinton Administration, the newsweeklies were brought in for a conversation with a senior administration official specializing in national security. They also brought in the radio reporters. What the two groups needed were totally different: Fly on the wall color, usually on background, was manna for us in magazineland. The radio guys needed sound. It was a mess because the mag guys, and they were guys, wanted things that could only be ascertained on background and the parties often would not consent to being recorded.
Obviously, the press needs to do its job and not wait for the handful of oats, with an occasional carrot, that the White House might bring to our stable. And the press will do that. We’re going to hear about every dollar Neera Tanden raised at the Center for American Progress and every tweet she fired off. We’re going to find out why there’s no Defense Secretary yet. Hunter Biden should be but won’t be left alone.
In the weeks and months ahead, the Washington Monthly will have more to say about the Biden administration and the press. If you think White House analysis and reporting can help readers make sense of the political and policy implications of the administration’s decisions then make a donation during our year-end fundraising drive.
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