The Cable

What Jen Psaki faces as the new State Department spokeswoman

Former 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 ...


Former 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 the job.

"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 Press Briefing.

"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 House.

"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 "ridiculous 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 plane.

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."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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