Against competition from the likes of Ari Fleischer and Mike McCurry, it is tough to suggest that Robert Gibbs was the worst White House press secretary in modern times. Then again, the spokesman for an administration that admits it cannot seem to get its message across on even the most basic levels, would have to be in contention for the title.
Certainly, few press secretaries have ever done more harm to a president they could so easily have helped.
Gibbs, who announced today that he will exit his position in early February, following in the footsteps of much of the rest of the team that came to the White House from the 2008 campaign, was never a particularly good communicator. A bland and forgettable player during a long presidential run when the focus was almost exclusively on the candidate, Gibbs emerged shortly after the election as the face of the new administration. That proved to be politically disastrous for the president. Thin-skinned and prone to attacking friendly critics, he did more than anyone except former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to create and expand the progressive "enthusiasm gap" that so harmed Democrats in the 2010 election cycle.
Noting the "contempt" that Emanuel, Gibbs and other departing administration aides displayed for grassroots Democrats—and progressive values—former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean got the sentiment right when he said Wednesday: "As they say, don’t let the door hit you in the you-know-what on the way out.”
Gibbs will be remembered, in particular, for his harsh criticism of what he termed "the professional left," which, like Emanuel’s dismissal of serious healthcare reformers as "retards," exposed the anger of Obama’s inner circle at the principled activists and groups that played such a pivotal role in securing the 2008 president nomination for a freshman senator from Illinois. Gibbs was one of the politically naïve players who believed that they had "created" Obama as some sort of media phenomenon, and always failed to recognize that their candidate was nominated largely because he was seen as the "left wing of the possible" among the major contenders in 2008.
That misread meant that every time Gibbs opened his mouth, he widened the gap between Obama and the progressive base that the president could not afford to take for granted. Even when Obama and others in the White House attempted to build bridges, Gibbs and Emanuel burned them. And the rest is history—the history we are now living as Republicans take charge of the House and game the administration on issues such as tax policy.