Karine Jean-Pierre steps into the bright White House spotlight

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White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre smiles as she arrives for a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Karine Jean-Pierre, pictured in November, is the new White House press secretary. She is taking over from Jen Psaki at a difficult time for the Biden administration. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

As a young staffer working in the Obama White House, Karine Jean-Pierre was surprised the first time she struck up a conversation with then-Vice President Joe Biden.

It was 2009, and Biden had chosen the seat next to her on a flight back from politicking in New Jersey. The vice president regaled Jean-Pierre with tales of his progressive work with women and the LGBTQ+ community, according to her 2019 memoir. They hit it off, and soon, Jean-Pierre was working so regularly with Biden that the Secret Service gave her an official pin allowing her special access to the vice president.

More than a decade later, Jean-Pierre this week is taking on a much higher-profile role that will put her in even closer and more regular proximity to Biden — as his official spokesperson, a high-pressure job with little room for error. She’ll face reporters on camera nearly every day, fielding questions on on topics as varied as immigration, abortion rights, the Iran nuclear deal and the federal deficit.

The announcement of her appointment on May 5 drew headlines citing the history-making nature of her ascension to the post — she will be the first Black and out gay person in the job — and the difficulty she and her White House team are facing. She is stepping into the spotlight as the Biden administration is struggling to find its political footing ahead of midterm elections that could spell trouble for Democrats.

"I am obviously acutely aware that my presence at this podium represents a few firsts. I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman — the first of all three of those to hold this position," she told reporters on Monday during her first official briefing. "If it were not for generations of barrier-breaking people before me, I would not be here."

The nation's first Black press secretary spent the majority of her first briefing fielding questions about white supremacy and violent extremism and their links to what officials have described as a racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., on Saturday that left 10 people dead and three others wounded. The FBI is investigating whether it constitutes a hate crime.

She said Biden is traveling to Buffalo on Tuesday to comfort the victim's families and will call on Congress to pass long-stalled gun safety legislation..

Political fights ahead

As former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s No. 2, Jean-Pierre is familiar with the treacherous political terrain — the war in Ukraine, high inflation and gas prices, low presidential approval ratings and a stalled domestic agenda that’s left many of Biden’s campaign promises unfulfilled. An impending Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe vs. Wade is certain to further scramble the political calculus.

Aides and allies say she's been training for the job since she arrived at the White House in January 2021. Jean-Pierre has led press briefings, filling in for Psaki at the podium and aboard Air Force One. She has regularly knocked on the door of senior staff, kicked off the daily press meeting with Biden to discuss news of the day and played an active role in the early morning email exchanges, officials say.

“She’s had a runway to get fully up to speed, so every step of the way, I think, this will be a very smooth transition,” said Valerie Jarrett, a former senior advisor to President Obama and mentor to Jean-Pierre. “But each woman has their own style and presence and relationships.”

While cleaning out her office on Friday, Jean-Pierre reflected on the dizzying week since her promotion.

"It's bittersweet," she said as she sorted through stacks of paper on a desk adorned with images of Obama and Biden, as well as family photos of her partner, CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, and their 7-year-old daughter, Soleil.

"We're going to miss her so much," she said of Psaki, who is departing to join MSNBC as a host.

No 'Psaki bombs'

Jean-Pierre inherits a role that’s been reshaped by Psaki after four acrimonious years during the Trump administration. Psaki, who sought to restore traditional White House press corps decorum, has become one of the administration's most recognizable faces and effective messengers.

Colleagues say the public should not expect Jean-Pierre to run briefings as Psaki did, although she has committed to continue holding daily briefings as her predecessor did. Though congenial, Psaki was not afraid to get into pointed exchanges with reporters and drop "Psaki bomb" missives that earned her a cult following. Jean-Pierre, by contrast, is far more low-key, soft-spoken and a self-proclaimed introvert, they said.

That's the way it should be, former White House communications officials said. Robert Gibbs, Obama’s first press secretary who advised Psaki when she took the role, emphasized that Jean-Pierre should create her own rhythms and style.

“I don’t think it would behoove anybody to be the person that they replace,” he said.

Born in French Martinique and raised in Hempstead, N.Y., Jean-Pierre credits her upbringing as the child of Haitian immigrants — her mother was a home healthcare aide and her father a taxi driver — as informing policy issues she’s focused on throughout her career. She's also a first-generation college graduate — earning degrees from the New York Institute of Technology and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Jean-Pierre started her political career as a legislative aide for a New York City council member. She counts the late former New York Mayor David Dinkins as her mentor. She caught the eye of national Democratic operatives while working for Walmart Watch, a corporate accountability nonprofit affiliated with the powerful Service Employees International Union.

Her arrival to national politics came during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign of former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as his Southeast political director. After he came in third behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in his home state, Jean-Pierre said she "couldn't get out of town fast enough," and returned to New York, where she briefly served as disgraced New York congressman Anthony Weiner's press secretary.

She turned down an early chance to join the 2008 Obama campaign, a decision she calls “one of my greatest regrets," only to join it a month before he accepted the nomination.

Already under fire

Patrick Gaspard, a longtime friend who hired Jean-Pierre as a regional director in the Obama White House's political affairs office, recalled her as “really shy and kind of an introvert, which is not something that you expect from someone who steps into activism and organizing.”

She left the Obama administration in 2011 to work on his reelection in Chicago. She earned more campaign credentials, including as former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's national political director for his 2016 presidential bid. That same year, she took a top public affairs job at MoveOn.org, a progressive advocacy group, and as an analyst on NBC and MSNBC.

Should Republicans retake one or both chambers of Congress, she’ll be forced to field questions about potential investigations that some GOP members have promised should they win control.

Republicans are already attacking her over tweets she wrote before rejoining the White House, particularly one in 2020 that alleged Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp “stole” the 2018 gubernatorial election from Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Biden and Democrats have spent the last 18 months blasting Republicans who supported former President Trump's baseless claims of widespread fraud costing him reelection in 2020.

Inroads into Biden World

Though Jean-Pierre knows Biden well, she is not a member of his inner circle of longtime advisors. Psaki, a veteran of the Obama administration who didn't work on Biden’s 2020 campaign, managed to break into the tight-knit group and joined senior staff calls and spoke with the president at least once or twice a day, officials say.

"There are a lot of people here you can gut check with and bat around ideas," Psaki said in an interview on her last day in the White House. "People who know his mind, his thinking and his brain, which is something you develop quickly by spending a lot of time with him, but they're a huge resource that can be invaluable."

There are signs that Jean-Pierre has already made inroads into Biden World. The president offered her the job, not Chief of Staff Ron Klain or another communications official. First Lady Jill Biden called to congratulate Jean-Pierre shortly after she was offered the job, according to White House officials.

The president and first lady held a champagne toast for both Psaki and Jean-Pierre last week at the White House in the Executive Residence.

Vice President Kamala Harris, too, phoned Jean-Pierre the day after she was promoted. Harris has maintained a close relationship with Jean-Pierre, who served as her chief of staff during the 2020 campaign.

It's a good sign, former officials said, that she already has the trust of the president and vice president. That's a key part of the job.

Whether she keeps it will depend largely on how how she delivers the Biden administration's message and handles tough questions from the media.

Every one of her utterances and facial expressions will be picked over. The slightest misstep can cause political heartburn, derail legislative negotiations and even spark diplomatic kerfuffle. The stakes for Biden, who is entering a bruising midterm election season, and Jean-Pierre could not be higher.

When "the cameras are on," said Gibbs, the former press secretary, "batting anything less than one thousand is something that will stress you out at night.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.