Washington — Jay Carney had a smooth debut as White House press secretary this afternoon, in the sense that he avoided gaffes and made little news. Instead, in a relatively quiet briefing, Carney, a former Time reporter and adviser to Vice President Biden, showcased his low-key, friendly style. He clearly has a rapport with many on the Pennsylvania Avenue beat, and on Day One it served him well — many ‘questions’ featured hearty welcomes followed by softly lobbed queries about his new role and perspective.
“I understand where you come from, literally,” Carney mused.
For the most part, Carney anchored himself to the administration’s talking points, rarely giving his own take. He repeatedly referred to President Obama’s previous statements in his response — a safe, though hardly exciting, tack. He also attempted to be lighthearted when possible, joking about how he was “not an economist” and would not entertain “hypotheticals” — two oft-given, groan-inducing responses by Robert Gibbs, his predecessor.
But, almost immediately, Carney (playfully) went back on his hypothetical pledge when he was asked who he would like to play him on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. “God forbid that anybody does,” he said. The press corps ate it up.
As much as he established himself as a fresh face, Carney, in many ways, resembled Gibbs, at least in this initial go-round: Both abstain from freewheeling riffs; both avoid combative answers; both share little about the president’s thinking, beyond reminding us that he is “serious” about finding solutions to problems.
On the policy front, entitlement talk took up much of the session. Interestingly, Carney used the December tax deal as an example of how the GOP and Democrats could cobble together a compromise. “We have a template for how this can work,” he said. “This is the beginning of a process.” Beyond that, he offered few specifics. “I am not going to get into negotiating a Social Security solution from this podium,” he remarked.
Speaking of Egypt, where CBS reporter Lara Logan was recently assaulted, Carney said that those who commit violence need to be held responsible for their actions. “Violence is unacceptable,” he said.
On Iran, Carney did not elaborate on the administration’s view of Iranian warships moving toward the Suez Canal. “Our position on Iran and the right of way is well known and I would refer you on that, specifically, to the State Department,” he said. “I don’t have anything for you on the ship in the Suez.”
On the shooting of two U.S. immigration officials in Mexico, Carney read from a prepared text about the president’s response, telling the press that Obama called the parents of slain Special Agent Jaime Zapata to offer his “heartfelt condolences.”
Also of note, via Carney: The administration is still committed to closing Gitmo; Team Obama is, of course, not playing politics by granting interviews to local TV stations in the districts of Speaker Boehner, Leader Cantor, and Rep. Paul Ryan; Obama and GOP leaders, he believes, want to “avoid” a government shutdown during the ongoing debate over the continuing resolution to fund the government.
Carney took the podium at 12:41 p.m. — a little more than ten minutes behind schedule, which drew comparisons to Gibbs’s tardiness among the assembled.
At the top, Carney chuckled as he looked out at the packs of reporters and photographers; most were inches apart, sweating and thumbing Blackberries under the white-hot TV lights. “I appreciate the turnout,” he mused. “I have never seen the room this crowded.”
Unlike Gibbs, Carney called on numerous outlets — web, print, TV, and foreign press — during the Q-and-A.