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Jay Carney Steps Into Spotlight

Jay Carney

JULIE PACE   02/16/11 04:09 PM ET   AP

WASHINGTON — Jay Carney, the new public face of the Obama administration, conducted his first White House briefing Wednesday and promised to build a stronger relationship with the press corps. But the former reporter also made it clear that he's now playing for the president's team.

"I work to promote the president and the messages he's trying to convey to the American people," Carney said in his first formal exchange with reporters. "But I also work with the press to help you do your jobs."

Carney offered few specifics about how he planned to do that, saying there was no rulebook to follow. Many in the press corps are hoping Carney's background as a journalist will help improve the relationship between the White House and reporters, who have complained about a lack of access to the president and a lack of responsiveness from Carney's predecessor, Robert Gibbs.

"I understand where you come from, literally," said Carney, who worked for Time magazine for 20 years. "I want to work with you, all of you, to give the access that we can give when we can."

Carney's first appearance in the briefing room completes a West Wing staff transition that began late last year, and saw the departure of chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod and Gibbs, all key members of Obama's inner circle. William Daley, a business executive and former commerce secretary, replaced Emanuel, and Obama's former campaign director David Plouffe now holds the title of senior adviser.

White House deputy spokesman Bill Burton, another longtime Obama aide, announced Wednesday that he, too, would be leaving to start a consulting firm. Burton had long been considered a likely replacement for Gibbs, but was passed over in favor of Carney.

Carney, 45, joined the Obama team shortly after the 2008 election, and served as communications director to Vice President Joe Biden. He kept a low profile, and rarely spoke publicly to the press, a luxury he'll no longer have now that he occupies the most high-profile job in the White House.

Carney prepared for his first-ever public briefing by holding a series of fake briefing sessions where White House press aides playing reporters quizzed him about the topics of the day and confronted him on issues likely to come up in his first briefings, including the budget and Egypt.

To the chagrin of the press room regulars, Carney kept one of the traditions of his predecessor, Robert Gibbs: He started Wednesday's briefing late, by roughly 10 minutes. Even the two-minute warning to the start of the briefing ran longer than that.

Speaking to a packed room, Carney made little news. He was steady and repetitive, and those used to covering press briefings at the White House heard the same stock formulations used by Gibbs and many before him.

Carney said he did not want to negotiate issues from the podium. He said he did not want to engage in hypotheticals. He said he did not want to get ahead of the president.

A reporter prodded him on the political strategy of Obama's local television interviews on Wednesday, noting that they take place in the districts represented by three of the top House Republicans. Carney refused to acknowledge that Obama was purposely trying to win the news cycle on the turf of his competitors. Reporters were openly disbelieving of his response.

"Oh, come on, Jay," one said.

Carney has made a few notable overtures to the press during his first days on the job, sending his contact information to the press corps and dropping by the small offices news organizations occupy near the briefing room to meet the reporters and photographers he'll be dealing with on a daily basis.

Carney became a well-known name in Washington during his career as a journalist. He served as Time's Washington bureau chief from 2005-2008, and covered the White House when it was occupied by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in northern Virginia, Carney is married to ABC News correspondent Claire Shipman.

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AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller contributed to this report.

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Filed by Elyse Siegel  |