Karine Jean-Pierre will become the new face of President Biden’s White House Monday — a historic change some have been waiting for for years.
Jean-Pierre will be the first black and first openly LGBTQ person to serve as White House press secretary.
For years, a small group of influential black communicators have quietly lobbied multiple governments to have an African American man on the podium.
The hit television show Scandal is based on Judy Smith, a former Bush press secretary who became the first black speaker to brief at the White House in 1991 and later became a crisis management expert. She was never a press secretary.
The nation elected its first black president in 2008, Barack Obama, and during his tenure, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton was considered for the role. He was eventually passed over, and three white men served as press secretaries under Obama.
Now Jean-Pierre will break the ceiling in the Biden administration at a moment when many will celebrate.
“One cannot underestimate how big this is, how important it will be for so many people of color who have worked and are working so hard in communications to see a black LGBTQ woman representing the President of the United States on the podium” , said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau.
The change was also noted within the Administration.
“Twenty years ago, it was quite difficult to find a black press secretary for a US senator, cabinet secretary or presidential candidate,” said Jamal Simmons, who serves as Vice President Kamala Harris’ communications director. “Now there will be a black press secretary on the White House podium. President Biden has broken another barrier for African Americans in politics.”
Jean-Pierre takes over from veteran Democratic communicator Jen Psaki, whose official last day was Friday. She has served as Psaki’s deputy for the past 16 months, sometimes briefing reporters from the podium or aboard the Air Force.
Jean-Pierre slips into the role at an intense, critical moment. The White House is grappling with challenges on multiple fronts, from the Russian war in Ukraine to critical supply chain issues and domestic inflation to the COVID-19 pandemic. And with six months until the midterm elections, Democrats fear the worst.
“I think being White House press secretary is one of the toughest jobs in politics,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who served as spokesman at George W. Bush’s White House. “If there’s good news, it’s up to the president, if there’s bad news, it’s up to the press secretary.”
Those who know Jean-Pierre well say she’s up to the job.
“She is a remarkable woman. She has a lot of experience. But the thing about the White House press secretary is that your constituency is actually the American people,” said Donna Brazile, former acting chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “This is probably a different job than any job she’s ever done.”
Jean-Pierre brings some different experiences to her predecessor Psaki, who said last week she’s spent more time in the White House than anywhere else in her career.
Psaki also has more foreign policy experience, having served as the State Department spokeswoman.
Democrats who rose with Jean-Pierre say she will bring a different tenor to the White House press office and the podium.
“For starters, she is a political person. She’s an organizer,” said a Democrat who has known Jean-Pierre for years. “Psaki was born and raised as Flack. That’s not Karine.”
“Her personal style is closer to the vest,” the source said. “It will not target the carotid artery.”
The source said Jean-Pierre was well suited for the podium as the midterms approached.
“She can convey a political message without the sharp elbows, without being overdone,” the source said.
Democratic strategist Karen Finney added that Jean-Pierre’s organizational background will “bring a different perspective on how to articulate some of these issues and talk about some of them in a way that resonates with the American people.
“Bringing that sensitivity into the conversation is a real service,” Finney added.
Jean-Pierre first met the Bidens in the Obama White House and while working on the Obama and Biden campaigns. She also served as a spokesperson for the progressive group MoveOn and as a commentator for MSNBC. A graduate of the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, Jean-Pierre also returned to college to teach for several years.
Ester Fuchs, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University who taught Jean-Pierre and also helped her land the teaching position, described her former student as “tough, well-prepared, bright and motivated. Fuchs recalled that Jean-Pierre pushed to teach the political campaigning course alone, despite her suggestion that she might try it as part of a team.
“She literally said to me, ‘No. I definitely want to do it myself,” said Fuchs. “And I was really quite amazed.”
Things didn’t always go smoothly for Jean-Pierre.
After Biden hired her as Harris’ chief of staff during the presidential election, sources said there were often clashes between her and the running mate. Some campaign staff felt that Jean-Pierre remained powerless in his role throughout the campaign. When Biden won, she joined his team on the west wing.
Like her predecessor, Jean-Pierre is sure to be the target of Republican attacks at times.
Shortly after Jean-Pierre was named, some conservatives criticized her for old tweets she wrote about the election of Republican Georgia Governor Brian Kemp about “stolen” Democrat Stacy Abrams. She also called Trump’s 2016 election a “stolen election,” referring to the Russian hack of Democrat emails.
“Baseless stolen electoral claims undermine the integrity of our elections, regardless of who is pushing them,” Georgia Foreign Minister Brad Raffensberger said in a statement criticizing her appointment.
Jean-Pierre’s allies say not to heed the criticism.
“I wouldn’t let Republicans color anyone with crayons because they just throw slime,” Brazile said.
Finney added that everyone in government will be the target of the right wing “because they’re looking for ways to advance their very divisive, sometimes racist, sexist, bigoted agenda, using issues to divide people.
“We have seen particularly despicable attacks on black women from the vice president to the police [the Justice Department’s] Kirsten Clark and Judges [Ketanji] Jackson, so she’s in very good company,” Finney added.
It’s not clear how different regular briefings will be under Jean-Pierre, though she has committed to holding daily briefings on Friday — something the Biden White House has revived after four years of inconsistent press briefings under former President Trump.
Psaki admitted last week that Jean-Pierre would bring “her own style” to the job. She also offered some advice for her successor: ask lots of questions to Biden and attend lots of political meetings.
“It’s not about — and this is just general advice to anyone who’s going to do this job going forward — it’s not about reading talking points out of a book,” Psaki told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast last week.
“It’s about understanding policies so thoroughly that you can explain them to your mother-in-law or your friend on the street and answer the ninth question reporters might have about it.”
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