WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s choice as his new spokesman is a son of the Midwest who will soon be one of the most visible faces of the U.S. government here and around the world.
“Today the flak jacket is officially passed to a new generation, Mr. Josh Earnest,” Obama said half-jokingly Friday in introducing his choice to be the new White House press secretary.
The president named Earnest to replace Jay Carney, who announced Friday that he was stepping down after 3 1/2 years of presiding over daily briefings, press conferences, thousands of miles of travel and the unpredictable whirlwind of the 24-hour news cycle.
“I am grateful and excited and relish the opportunity to spend the next couple of years working with you as you work to do that very important work,” Earnest told reporters after being introduced by Obama. “And that job in this aggregated media world has never been more difficult, but I would argue that it has never been more important.”
Already the top deputy to Carney, Earnest is the son of a psychologist mother and a private school athletic director father from the suburbs of Kansas City.
He moves now into the center of the media storm in one of the most demanding jobs in Washington in terms of hours and portfolio. He'll have to be on top of worldwide current events, almost instinctively know what questions reporters might ask, and serve as a traffic cop of sorts between a voracious adversarial media and a White House that relishes keeping its cards close to the vest.
“Every single day they’re on the firing line, and reporters often have a huge number of different subjects that they want to ask about at the daily briefing,” said Caren Bohan, who oversees White House and congressional coverage for Reuters and is a past president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
“The press secretary has to be up to speed on everything from foreign policy to the president’s climate change initiative to the troubles at the veteran’s affairs agency,” she said. “You can often find yourself on the defensive.”
According to the president, family and friends, Earnest is more than up to the task.
“Oh yeah. Absolutely,” Don Earnest, 65, of Lee’s Summit, Mo., said of his son. “He’s certainly excited about that opportunity. Those opportunities are rare and pretty gratifying.”
And something that the younger Earnest has prepared for most of his adult life.
After graduating from Rice University in 1997 with a degree in political science, he started jumping into Democratic campaigns – in Houston for former Mayor Lee Brown, New York for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Washington as a congressional aide and a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, Florida for a governor’s race.
Finally, he landed in Iowa, working on then-Sen. Obama’s quest to upset Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
“Josh was my Iowa communications director, and even when he was in that role, you’d find him spending an extra hour or two helping young staffers make phone calls or knock on doors,” Obama recalled Friday.
“At the White House, he’s been a mentor to many of the young people here, who I know are thrilled for him today,” Obama said. “He is of sound temperament. He is honest and full of integrity, and I’m sure you will at some point get frustrated with him as well. But it’s going to be hard because he’s a straight shooter – and a great guy.”
Adam Moore, a Kansas City attorney who’s known Earnest since grade school, agreed.
“It'll be a big change for him, but he’s been ready for a long time,” said Moore, 39. “He is without a doubt one of the most honest, straightforward guys you'll ever meet. Which I think will be a breath of fresh air in that press room.”
Moore warned the sharp-elbowed White House press corps not to expect a marshmallow at the podium.
“He’s a lot tougher than it seems,” he said. “He’s somebody who will take his lumps and do it with a smile on his face.”
Bohan described Earnest as “very professional” but said “he will push back if he doesn’t like the angle of your story or if he disagrees with the premise.”
Earnest is married to Natalie Wyeth, an assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department. They met at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. They are expecting their first child.
A fun fact about Wyeth: Her grandfather, the late Nathaniel C. Wyeth, invented the standard version of the plastic soda bottle.
Earnest and his family may reside within Washington’s Beltway, but he maintains strong Kansas City roots, cheering for the Royals baseball team.
“It’s not easy, but I totally do,” Earnest told McClatchy Friday, adding that he'll “take questions about the Royals from this podium any time.”
Lindsay Wise in Washington and Dave Helling of the Kansas City Star contributed.
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com