Inside the unlikely return of Jen Psaki

Inside the unlikely return of Jen PsakiDecember 1, 2020

Jen Psaki made it very clear: She had no plans to join Joe Biden’s administration.

Psaki, who has been overseeing the confirmation process on the transition team, said she was just helping out her old colleagues and friends before handing off the baton.

Then, on Sunday night, Biden announced that Psaki would be serving as press secretary, one of the most high-profile and demanding jobs in the White House.

Psaki emerged as the frontrunner for the job late in the process, over the past week or so, according to a source familiar with the decision. She and Biden had a chance to discuss the job last Tuesday in Wilmington, Del., when she was there for the public rollout of his national security team.

Psaki’s ascension to the top spokesperson’s role — one that she wanted and for which she was twice a runner-up for in the Obama administration — fits with the president-elect’s pattern of turning to experienced Washington operatives to fill the top positions in his administration. And it signals Biden’s intention to run a White House free of the kind of briefing-room drama that defined his predecessor’s tenure, from Sean Spicer’s claims about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd to Kayleigh McEnany’s misleading statements about the pandemic.

Ultimately, Psaki beat out other top contenders for the role, including Symone Sanders and Karine Jean-Pierre, because of her strong rapport with the former vice president combined with her expertise on economic and foreign policy issues and her experience conducting high-profile press briefings, multiple people familiar with the selection said.

“She is an ideal choice for them for a job that’s really hard to fill,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a former communications director in the Obama White House. “It’s hard to find someone that has credibility, the press likes, will mesh well with the White House staff and can speak about foreign policy and national security issues with a lot of credibility.”

Psaki, who turns 42 on Tuesday, oversaw the economic portfolio in the White House communications office when Biden was leading the implementation of the Recovery Act and served as State Department spokesperson during John Kerry’s tenure. These experiences gave Biden confidence that Psaki was best prepared to serve as the face of his administration as he confronts multiple crises, including the coronavirus pandemic, the collapse of the economy and the fraying of American alliances around the world.

Echoing those same themes in the first of what are likely to be many relentlessly on-message tweets, Psaki wrote: “Honored to work again for @JoeBiden, a man I worked on behalf of during the Obama-Biden Admin as he helped lead economic recovery, rebuilt our relationships with partners (turns out good practice) and injected empathy and humanity into nearly every meeting I sat in.”

Biden’s staff and Cabinet picks so far match his campaign promise to return a sense of normalcy to the Oval Office. His team so far includes either people he has known and worked with for many years (like his chief of staff Ron Klain, who got started with Biden in the late 1980s) or government officials with unquestioned credentials for the job (like Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career foreign service officer whom Biden intends to nominate as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations). Sometimes they straddle both categories, like Tony Blinken, the longtime Biden aide who ascended to deputy secretary of State in the Obama administration and is Biden’s choice to move up a peg to secretary.

“With all of these picks they’re pretty predictable in that they’re guided by experience and Biden’s familiarity with people,” said Lis Smith, a former senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg.

The downside of Biden’s experience-first mentality, according to some of the less seasoned staffers who are still waiting for jobs, is that Obama veterans like Psaki have an advantage over campaign loyalists who might need some on-the-job training.

Recent press secretaries for presidents in their first year in office have almost all been people who stepped up into the role from a campaign perch: Jody Powell (Carter), James Brady (Reagan), George Stephanopoulos (Clinton), Ari Fleischer (George H.W. Bush), Robert Gibbs (Obama), Sean Spicer (Trump). The one recent exception is Marlin Fitzwater, who served as Reagan’s press secretary at the end of that administration, and continued in the job when Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, won the presidency in 1988.

Psaki, who has small children — in fact six of the seven members of the incoming communications team are moms with children 6 or younger — has indicated to colleagues that she is sensitive to the criticism from younger staffers who see some of the Obama alumni as obstacles. She has made it clear that she does not want the job forever (perhaps months rather than years) and sees her role as preparing her successor.

“You’ll learn the ropes and if you’re good, you’ll get the job when Psaki leaves,” one of Psaki’s Obama administration colleagues said, distilling the message sent to the more junior communications staffers. “But Jen’s just not going to make a mistake.”

As with every spot in the new Biden administration, diversity was a major consideration for the press secretary job. Two top candidates, Sanders and Jean-Pierre, both of whom are well-liked and have strong relationships with the D.C. press corps, are African American women. Vice president-elect Kamala Harris recruited Sanders for a senior role in her operation and Jean-Pierre will be Psaki’s deputy, which places her in the traditional spot from which press secretaries are chosen.

One top adviser to Biden noted, while pointing out that many more jobs still had to be filled, that there was some restlessness from Biden’s progressives allies about diversity.

“We pulled an unlikely coalition together to win and we will need to keep that coalition together to govern,” this person said. “We have had some cracks over the last few weeks and people need some hand-holding.”

According to transition sources, Anita Dunn, Biden’s trusted campaign adviser who has opted not to join the administration, helped run the process to choose the White House press secretary. Biden selected Psaki over less experienced candidates partly because he wanted someone like Dunn, a communications veteran with a high level of experience and gravitas who instead of stepping up into the job would be “ready on Day One,” a term that has become a mantra for transition officials.

Psaki had several assets Biden liked. She has a background in national security — “his first love,” as one source noted — and a history of facing tough questions before an international audience. He also wanted someone who would adopt a tone of unity — not partisan warfare — and emphasize his campaign promise of bringing the country together.

“The spokesperson is not and shouldn’t be the story because if you are it’s usually for bad reasons as we’ve seen,” said Jay Carney, a former Obama White House press secretary who was not involved in the selection process. “She definitely represents a return to an era that was bipartisan where the spokesperson was somebody who could credibly speak on behalf of the president, the White House and the administration and the country.”

The source familiar with the process noted that Biden’s decision was driven by the circumstances of the pandemic. The president-elect wanted a spokesperson who would be a trusted source of accurate information about Covid-19 policies and the distribution of a vaccine — someone who could help rebuild trust in government, not a political combatant skilled at generating viral videos by sparring with reporters live on camera.

“One of the things that is important to him is that the tone and message coming from the podium is aligned with his own — bringing the country together, rebuilding institutions, and trust in government,” said the source familiar with the process. “And not trying to win every inflammatory political debate.”

Psaki, who will be the face of the Biden White House with the return of daily briefings, which the president-elect has promised to reinstitute, may be the ideal avatar of the Biden transition.

“We are in a crisis and everyone needs to know how to do their job,” said Psaki’s former Obama administration colleague. “That’s the trend.”

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