During his time as White House press secretary, Jay Carney has dealt with some of the Obama administration’s most difficult and complex issues: the government shutdown, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and, most recently, the unfolding political turmoil in Ukraine.
Each event has been a learning experience for Mr. Carney, a former journalist who served as Time magazine’s Washington bureau chief before landing a job as Vice President Joe Biden’s director of communications. He thought he understood the inner workings of the government through his time reporting, but he told an audience at the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium that the reality of his job is much different than what he’d envisioned.
“When you get on the other side, you find out it’s not quite as you imagined—it’s more complex than you realized,” Mr. Carney said.
Mr. Carney spoke candidly of the challenges, new experiences and rewards that come with being the White House press secretary during an interview on Thursday with Major Garrett, a distinguished fellow in the School of Media and Public Affairs and CBS News’ chief White House correspondent. The event was so popular that its hashtag "#GWCarney" trended on Twitter. Mr. Canrey described how the job has changed in the advent of the digital age, when ubiquitous social media platforms drive news cycles and cause interactions between the White House and the press to happen at “warp speed.”
Despite how quickly things move in today’s fast-paced, oversaturated environment, Mr. Carney explained that the irony of the social media age is that it presents challenges in how to reach people. A full speech from the president covered by major cable news may never reach a larger audience, he said. Therefore, the White House always seeks new ways to connect with Americans—something that Mr. Carney said influenced the decision to have President Obama appear on the Internet comedy show “Between Two Ferns” to promote the Affordable Care Act.
The idea for President Obama to appear on the program originated from the show’s producers, who approached the White House about filming the episode. There were risks associated with the decision, Mr. Carney said, but he and the president were both very aware that it would catch the attention of young people.
“We obviously look at lots of ideas and we have some crazy ones we don’t take, but I think there’s an advantage to pushing the envelope,” Mr. Carney said.
Following the “Between Two Ferns” episode, healthcare.gov received more visits than ever, marking the decision a success, Mr. Carney said.
However, the technical glitches that the website faced during the implementation of the Affordable Care Act were another story. Mr. Carney said that while the problems associated with healthcare.gov are largely fixed now, Democratic leadership took responsibility for the crises.
“Everybody felt responsible. Everybody got to work and rolled their sleeves up to fix the problem,” he said.
Mr. Carney also defended the White House’s recent decision to confirm the director of the CIA’s travels to Ukraine, explaining that the White House felt it was important to counter “fabricated” Russian propaganda surrounding the visit.
“We needed to explain what it was and what it wasn’t,” he said, adding that the U.S. will show its support of Ukrainian sovereignty when Vice President Biden visits the country later this year.
Following Mr. Garrett’s interview, GW students got the opportunity to ask their own questions directly to the press secretary by submitting notecards to Mr. Garrett. Many students solicited career advice—Mr. Garrett revealed that many of the audience’s inquiries included, “What can I do to get your job in 20 years?”
Mr. Carney explained his career trajectory from journalist to press secretary was somewhat unusual, and told students they shouldn't follow his exact path. He pointed students to White House internship programs, which many GW alumni have completed.
Other questions revealed a more personal side of Mr. Carney: He dished on his favorite place to eat in D.C. (“the White House Mess Hall…and my kitchen with my kids.”); his favorite West Wing character (“C.J.!”) and that he is a big fan of the Netflix series “House of Cards”—although he hasn’t finished the latest season. One brave student even asked if she could take a selfie with Mr. Carney, which he happily obliged.
Mr. Carney also shared what has surprised and touched him most about his current position.
“The most surprising thing about this job is how human it is,” he said. “It’s people sitting with president, giving him the best advice they can based on what they think is best for our country.”