Washington (AFP) – She could be playing the charmer, hurling verbal explosives, or just applying spin, but whichever version of Jen Psaki appears at the White House podium, there's little question her departure Friday strips President Joe Biden of an able ally.
Instantly recognizable with her fiery red hair, press secretary Psaki, 43, has been the public face of the Biden administration from the moment the veteran Democrat moved into a White House reluctantly vacated by Donald Trump on January 20, 2021.
Psaki, who always said she didn't expect to keep the high-pressure position more than about a year, is now reportedly on her way to a lucrative host position at MSNBC cable news.
She's leaving just as a brutal midterm elections campaign starts, domestic problems like inflation and illegal immigration pile up around Biden, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine lurches into ever more complex geopolitical territory.
No doubt that Psaki's successor Karine Jean-Pierre — making history as the first Black and openly gay person in the job — can expect a torrid next few months.
Jean-Pierre, however, will also inherit a presidential press operation rebuilt after the anti-media rantings of the Trump White House.
Under Trump, the famous James S. Brady Briefing Room literally gathered dust while the rapidly changing cast of characters in the administration's press shop often seemed mostly concerned with attacking reporters.
Psaki leaves under a minor ethics cloud, given that she was being headhunted by TV outlets — and negotiating her deal — while continuing in her daily press secretary duties.
But that aside, there has been widespread praise for her professionalism.
Psaki herself stresses the higher calling she sees in the press secretary role, going on Fox News last weekend — her boss' biggest antagonist — to laud the importance of a free media.
“This is the greatest job I've ever had, maybe the greatest job I ever have,” she said.
With his zest for self-promotion, Trump made the White House press office redundant, preferring to get his message out directly, often by Twitter.
The goal, his aides said, was to bypass a biased media, but Trump's reliance on chaotic informal press gatherings and sometimes garbled or misspelled tweets fueled perceptions that his main aim was to make the presidency his personal reality show.
One press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, never held a single briefing in her nine months on the job. Her successor, Kayleigh McEnany, did hold some briefings, but these often veered into bad-tempered back-and-forths where McEnany made clear she shared the president's loathing for the media.
At the podium, Psaki typically fields queries on everything from Biden's thoughts about abortion to trade tariffs on Canadian lumber, the war in Ukraine, and the ups and downs of the First Family's pets.
Using skills that will transfer well to the TV host's chair, she comes to briefings so well prepared that it's rare for any journalist to trip her.
“One day, people will learn not to come for Psaki, but it is not this day,” quipped @Angry_Staffer, a popular political commentator on Twitter, posting a clip of the press secretary turning the tables this week on a reporter's seemingly tough question with a torrent of counter-arguments.
Psaki's self-confidence comes from deep experience as a Democratic party operative and stints under president Barack Obama as State Department spokeswoman, White House communications director, and election campaign press secretary.
And while her most stinging briefing room retorts are celebrated by online fans in #psakibomb memes, she relies less on gotcha tactics as much as a willingness to engage politely with hostile questioners.
That's a trait which got a thumb's up from no less than Peter Doocy, the Fox News White House correspondent, who has taken up the mantle of Psaki's chief sparring partner.
Some of their on-camera exchanges have been tense, but when Psaki announced she was leaving, Doocy thanked her, saying “you've always been a good sport” and adding that he was “sorry to see you go.”
To which Psaki, triggering laughter through the briefing room, shot back: “Are you?”