With his broad grin and aw-shucks approach, Bill Burton is a marked contrast with his boss, the always ready-for-battle White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
While Gibbs comes off as combative and hot, Burton is low-key and self-deprecating. He always seems ready to smile.
Describing how Obama was spending his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Burton joked Tuesday, "This will probably get me fired, but I know that Valerie (Jarrett, a senior presidential adviser) did not do so well in Scrabble against the president."
For two weeks, Burton is standing in for the vacationing Gibbs, serving as the public face of the White House. That's allowed Burton to gain stature on one of the key indexes in Washington: proximity to power.
Just 33 years old, the Buffalo, N.Y., native has already worked in three presidential campaigns and on Capitol Hill. He's seen as a top contender to be White House press secretary if Gibbs moves on. Burton — like Obama, the son of a black father and white mother — appears to be the first African-American to take the podium and speak on behalf of the president.
Another briefing was tentatively scheduled for Thursday.
"He clearly has a different personality than Robert," said Mike McCurry, who was press secretary for President Bill Clinton. "He's not as determined to win every argument."
Steve Elmendorf, who supervised Burton in Dick Gephardt's and John Kerry's presidential campaigns, lauded Burton.
"You watch him up there on the podium and you think, `This is someone who likes what he's doing, is in the job he should be doing and is doing it well,'" said Elmendorf. "He's just a really even-keeled, hardworking deputy who sort of fits into the Obama `no-drama' ethic from the campaign."
True to that motif, Burton declined a request to be interviewed for this article.
"Come on. Are you that bored?" he said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Gibbs told the AP not to read too much into his absence.
"I was on vacation last week. And I'm happy to say I didn't pick up my BlackBerry for the better part of five days," he said.
Serving as White House press secretary is a notorious grind. The challenge is delivering the daily White House message and responding to an array of media inquiries while retaining personal credibility.
Four people, including the late Tony Snow, held the job during the eight-year administration of President George W. Bush.
Gibbs has been press secretary for more than 18 months, but a choppy few months at the briefing room lectern — coupled with his stature as one of the president's closest political advisers — have prompted speculation about his long-term plans.
The press secretary has long relished exchanges with Republican critics, but this month Gibbs targeted his fellow Democrats. He complained that Obama's accomplishments have largely gone unnoticed by "the professional left."
In July, Gibbs also antagonized House Democrats by making the seemingly innocuous observation that there's "no doubt" the party could lose control of the chamber to the Republicans, given the number of close races.
In addition, the press secretary has had to soothe White House reporters following complaints about unreturned calls and tight control over photographers.
McCurry made note of that tension when he said of Burton, "He has certainly more of an easygoing personality, and I think the temperature in the White House can get pretty hot, but it goes down markedly when Bill's delivering the briefing."
Meanwhile, the president's re-election campaign begins after the November midterm elections, and some of his top 2008 political advisers, such as Jarrett and David Axelrod, are now weighted down with government jobs.
Eliminating the task of preparing for — and delivering — the daily briefing could free Gibbs to think more strategically. Under one scenario, Axelrod could resume a campaign role and Gibbs could assume his West Wing title as senior adviser to the president.
Gibbs did not want to address the subject during his interview with the AP, but after a JetBlue flight attendant made an infamous exit from an airliner earlier this month, the press secretary joked, "I don't plan on leaving, and there's no truth to the rumor that I've added an inflatable exit to my office."
Burton graduated from the University of Minnesota before entering politics as an aide to Rep. Bill Luther, D-Minn. In 2001, he became press secretary to Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a key presidential state. In 2003, he moved to Gephardt's White House campaign, before signing on with Kerry, who ended up winning the 2004 Democratic nomination.
The Massachusetts senator lost the race, but Burton found his future wife, Laura Capps, daughter of Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif. Laura Capps also worked on the Kerry campaign, and she and Burton were married in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2007.
After the Kerry campaign, Burton shifted over to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, handling communications for the group charged with electing Democrats to the House. In January 2007, he joined the Obama campaign as national press secretary. Gibbs was his boss, the communications director.
The two then moved to the White House when Obama won.
Today, Burton continues to play second fiddle to Gibbs' lead. That includes Twitter postings, including one pointing out the photograph accompanying a newspaper story that said Obama hadn't held a news conference in 10 months.
"Odd since it's from his press conf 4 mos ago," Burton tweeted.
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