White House Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki is headed to the State Department to be the new
spokeswoman, a potential stepping stone in her path to succeed White House
Press Secretary Jay Carney. But
first she'll have to master both internal and external diplomacy when she
arrives in Foggy Bottom.
Psaki worked with Secretary of State John Kerry during his 2004 presidential run and was reportedly in
contention to be White House press secretary before Carney got the job. She
worked for the White House in the first term but left to serve as press
secretary and spokeswoman for President
Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. As a former Kerry and Obama
staffer, Psaki is uniquely situated to have influence and credibility with both
the State Department and White House leadership.
"Whether it's at the White House or the State Department, there
are multiple things you need to be successful, but the first and foremost is
the trust and respect of your bosses and Jen has the relationship and the trust
of the president and the new secretary, given her work with him in the past,"
former White House Press Secretary Joe
Lockhart told The Cable.
Of course, nobody knows if or when Carney will leave his post, but
Psaki's upcoming stint at State could certainly help her résumé as she vies for
"When a president looks to appoint a press secretary, they first
and foremost look at someone they know and they trust, and secondly someone who
has a breadth of experience on a range of issues, whether they be domestic or
foreign policy related," Lockhart said.
A former White House senior staffer told The Cable that foreign policy and national security bonafides might
just give Psaki the edge in a future competition for Carney's job. Other
candidates to replace Carney would be those who have had a significant role on
the campaign or are working closely with Carney, such Josh Earnest and Ben Labolt.
"If she does want to be White House press secretary, she needs to
go and get foreign policy experience. It's a big part of the job," the former
White House staffer said. "The single best way to get experience with foreign
policy and national security experience is to work at the State Department or
the Pentagon and getting that experience will be the differentiator between Jen
or someone else who just has experience on the domestic front."
The quintessential example of a White House press secretary whose
foreign policy chops were not up to the job was during the Bush administration,
when Dana Perino admitted she had
never heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis before it came up in a White House
"I came home and I asked my
husband," she later
recalled. "I said, 'Wasn't that like the Bay of Pigs thing?' And he
said, 'Oh, Dana.'"
If Psaki eventually replaces Carney at the White House, the model
of having a former journalist at the podium would be reversed; a political
person would be back at the helm. But at the State Department, Psaki's arrival
marks a switch away from having a foreign-service officer speaking for the
Department, such as outgoing spokeswoman Victoria
Nuland, who was once U.S. Ambassador to NATO.
There is one example in recent history of a State Department
spokesman subsequently becoming White House press secretary: Mike McCurry, who spoke for Secretary
of State Warren Christopher and
President Bill Clinton.
In an interview, McCurry said he has no idea if Psaki is being
groomed to replace Carney, but if she is, the State Department is the right
place for her to go next.
"There is some logic to it, because if you've gone through the
process of doing the State Department daily briefing, the briefing at the White
House is easier to undertake. It's a great training ground," he said. "It's the
discipline of getting ready for that briefing that really helped me in the
White House so much because it teaches you to be as thorough as you can be to
track down every bit of information you can get."
Psaki will have plenty of time to prepare. She will arrive at the
State Department soon but is expected to take a couple of months to study
before braving the podium and the State Department press corps. McCurry warned
that the State Department media scrum (including your humble Cable Guy) is better
versed in the intricacies and history of the issues they cover than any other
press corps in Washington --both a blessing and a curse.
"It's a lot harder work, it's more intellectually stimulating, and
the press corps all have graduate degrees in international relations so the
challenge of doing the briefing there is a lot better than the comical
absurdity of doing the White House briefing," McCurry said.
But if Psaki is smart, she'll take all of that foreign policy
knowledge she is about to acquire at State and put it to good use at the White
"There were plenty of times I could wax poetic about Nagorno-Karabakh at great
length and it was a great way to head off questions on other zestier matters I
wanted to avoid," McCurry said.
Psaki will also have to navigate an internal dynamic at the State
Department's public affairs bureaucracy, which has been characterized by a
measure of bureaucratic confusion and infighting over the last four years. For
most of Hillary Clinton's early
tenure, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley pulled double duty as both the manager of the public
affairs staff and the podium spokesperson.
Meanwhile, a strategic communications shop run by Clinton confidante Philippe Reines did big picture
planning and sometimes clashed with the public affairs regulars. Reines was
also a fierce protector of Clinton personally. There was friction all around.
Crowley was unceremoniously relieved of both of his responsibilities
after he admitted that he thought the government's treatment of alleged
WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning was
and counterproductive and stupid." Nuland took over at the podium and Mike Hammer was given back to State from the National Security Council
to be the new assistant secretary.
Tensions between the different parts of the bureaucracy remained: Nuland's
relationship with Hammer's shop, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of
State for Public Affairs Dana Smith,
simmered for a while and eventually deteriorated into conflict.
When Psaki arrives, she will find a clean slate. Glen Johnson, a former Boston
Globe editor, has been brought on as the new strategic communications
advisor for Kerry, but the strategic communications shop has been folded back into the regular bureaucracy.
Hammer is also expected to move to a new assignment shortly.
Crowley told The Cable that the State
Department can be so risk averse that it hampers the effectiveness of public
communications. But as a former White House senior staffer, Psaki will likely understand
that State can benefit by being more open and more aggressive when playing the
politics related to their issues.
"She's coming from the White House and a successful White House
understands that you have to be in the middle of the debate to succeed. She'll
walk into the State Department where there's a recognition that the State Department
has to say something and the impulse
is the less the better," said Crowley. "Jen will have to figure out how to
operate along that fault line."
"I tilted toward being more forthcoming, reflecting the fact that
when we came in 2009 the credibility of the U.S. was not particularly high and
in order to repair that we had to communicate more. Now there's been a return
to the tradition of the State Department to be less forthcoming," Crowley said.
Crowley said Psaki's effectiveness will also depend on whether she
is in the room with the principals when important discussions are taking place
and whether she is able to travel with Kerry. We're told she will be on the
McCurry had one last piece of advice for Psaki as she embarks on
her new adventure.
"Keep your sense of humor because you're going to need that," he said.
"A sense of humor is better than a flak jacket, that's for sure."