WASHINGTON — Josh Earnest comes to the job of White House press secretary with a reputation for Midwestern affability and a style of relating to the media that's more honey and less vinegar.
Earnest officially becomes White House press secretary next week after several years as the chief deputy, but he planned to take over the daily briefing — the most prominent and high-stakes part of the job — on Friday.
Or, as President Barack Obama declared, "The flak jacket is officially passed to a new generation."
The 39-year-old's ascension comes at a challenging time in Obama's presidency, with his job-approval ratings at new lows and an expectation that more criticism is coming his way in the heat of the midterm elections campaign, followed by the 2016 presidential race.
As news organizations increasingly turn their interest more to the race to replace Obama, Earnest faces the challenge of drawing attention to the president's agenda and helping shape the lasting impression Obama will leave after a bruising start to his second term. Earnest said in an interview he wants to make sure the White House is responding quickly to critics and making a more effective counter-argument.
"It's our responsibility to marshal evidence in a way that allows independent journalists to accurately describe the president's priorities and, when necessary, explain why the critics are wrong," Earnest said. "The daily briefing gives us a unique, high-profile opportunity to make the case, and I'm looking forward to making the most of it. "
The Kansas City, Missouri, native's style is a departure from the often combative interactions of his predecessors, Jay Carney and Robert Gibbs. Both were known as pugnacious Obama defenders, while Earnest has a reputation for working more cooperatively with the press to advocate for his boss.
Earnest's selection has some similarities to the choice of Dana Perino as President George W. Bush's last press secretary — she was a No. 2 with a reputation for responsiveness to reporters who brought a more cordial style to the podium at the end of an administration.
"Things got very heated in the briefing room and it wasn't serving anybody very well, so one thing that I did was turn down the temperature," said Perino, now a host of "The Five" on Fox News Channel. "I didn't argue, I just answered the question. I thought it was a better way to serve President Bush. I swallowed a lot of sarcasm, a lot of funny quips.
"Maybe President Obama recognized that a change of tone wouldn't be a bad thing," she said of the Earnest selection.
Earnest is a veteran of tough campaigns and is not above a sharp push-back. "You've never heard of a computer crashing before?" he retorted this week when asked whether it's reasonable to believe that the IRS could lose emails in a computer crash. "I think it's entirely reasonable, because it's the truth and it's a fact. And speculation otherwise I think is indicative of the kinds of conspiracies that are propagated around this story."
Along with Earnest's selection, Obama's change in media approach also is evident from his invitation for questions recently from the Oval Office, the South Lawn and the briefing room. Obama advisers say the president has expressed a desire to "get out from behind the podium" where he delivers formal speeches and engage more with the press and the public, like in the town hall meeting he had Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
Earnest first went to work for Obama as communications director for his momentous 2008 caucus victory. While he was working at the Chicago campaign headquarters after Obama secured the nomination, he met his wife, Natalie Wyeth Earnest, when she was the press secretary for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She now works at the Treasury Department and is pregnant with their first child, a boy due in August, which would conveniently allow Earnest to take paternity leave during Obama's summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard.
The president, who tends to be most comfortable promoting trusted aides who've been with him from the start, said he and Earnest share an "incredible history going all the way back to the Iowa caucuses." He requested of reporters, "Be nice to Josh during his initiation, which I'm sure will last maybe two days — or perhaps two questions."
Follow Nedra Pickler at http://twitter.com/nedrapickler