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Robert Gibbs seems to save the day for media on Obama's India trip

November 8, 2010 | 12:54 pm

Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs argues with Indian official over US reporters access to witness a meeting

A revealing apparent confrontation accidentally not-behind-the-scenes in India during President Obama's non-bowing state visit there:

Usually the public only sees the immaculately uniformed, perfectly-orchestrated ceremonial part,  as is the plan and as we described here earlier today.

These presidential trips, like those back home, are planned even months in advance down to which door is used and who's allowed to go through it. Overseas, the planning is complicated by varying cultural views, protocols and political priorities.

Indian officials, for instance, do not care that a visiting American dignitary got his political clock cleaned last Tuesday and that the American's staff wants to change the subject back ...

... home and have their boss seen in the best possible big-shot light abroad. And different societies have differing views of the rowdy media and its role and/or rights.

From a political communications point of view, what's the point of an American president acting on a world stage if fewer people back home see it? Without the right range of media witnesses to independently see and transmit the message, in effect, the event might as well not happen in terms of strategic communications?

Part of the ceremonial doo-dah of these things is that at the start or end of diplomatic meetings, a certain representative pool contingent of home and visiting media are allowed to witness small talk, handshakes, a stiff joke or two. It gives them smiley photos, video and some notes to fill out their stories and those of other absent journalists.

In the advance negotiations for today's bilateral meeting between Obama and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, everyone agreed that eight Americans would be allowed in the press pool. But when it came time for the appointed eight to file into the brief staged setting, some Indian official decided five was enough.Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs argues successfully with Indian official over press access to an official meeting 11-8-10

Fortunately for the U.S. media, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs was nearby. And he was much more of an in-your-face Chicago pol than calm Southern gentleman.

Americans usually see Gibbs or any White House spokesman verbally dodging and weaving and making the best possible public spin case for their boss before an annoyingly persistent media poking and prodding for conflict, hypocrisy, policy differences, etc. It's a very tricky job.

What isn't seen often -- but was today -- is the press secretary's internal advocacy for the press and its access. If most politicians and government folks had their way, no outsider would see or hear anything about their doings until days later in a stale, canned news release.

If a press secretary has a strong link to the president, he or she can be a much more effective media advocate and, therefore, positively shape the way their boss is ultimately seen.

Aides with other responsibilities are not usually happy with an internal advocate for those ignorant media clowns always trying to make trouble. But without that trust and link, often forged during the demanding, bonding days of a political campaign, the press secretary becomes a mere public parrot.

Today's India incident was worthy of a political novel. Gibbs stepped into the disagreement and made it a confrontation. In no uncertain terms he informed the Indian official that the eight U.S. media reps were going into that meeting or Gibbs was going to pull President Obama out of the session.

Now, that would create an international embarrassment, detract from the host's own political goals and hospitality and would rebound on that Indian functionary in a not-good way -- as in, how would you like to work in a distant provincial sewage plant starting tomorrow?

At one point, Gibbs even inserted his foot to stop a closing door and repeated his pullout threat with increased volume.

Whether Gibbs actually could have created such a presidential exit or would have ignited such a scene, doesn't really matter. The Indians worried that he would. So, the strategy worked this time.

All eight entered. They stood there. Saw the long wooden table beneath a lone chandelier. Saw the president and PM across from each other. Aides seated along either side. Heard not one word. And were ushered out 60 seconds later.

So, it didn't matter.

Except it did.

Invisibly, the often-maligned Gibbs earned some valuable, if silent, human props in the minds of his daily media antagonists. No one will ever be able to spot any benefits to Gibbs and Obama. But they'll be there.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credits: (top) Jason Reed / Reuters; (bottom) Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

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