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How Press Secretary Josh Earnest made sure he knew what Obama was thinking

Josh Earnest, White House press secretary since 2014, was there when Barack Obama was running for president, and he'll be there when the lights go out on the Obama White House. As he prepares to leave the podium, Earnest sits down with John Yang to discuss the role of being the gatekeeper between the press and the president.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tonight marks President Obama's final full day in office.

    We look back at those years now with someone who was there with him from day one, his press secretary, Josh Earnest.

    John Yang met with Earnest at the White House to ask him about the challenges of the job and what he wishes for his successor.

  • JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary:

    I joined the campaign in April 2007, so it's been a while now.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Josh Earnest was there when Barack Obama was a senator running for president, and he will be there when the lights go out in the Obama White House.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    Thank you, all. It's been a genuine pleasure.

  • JOHN YANG:

    So, flash-forward eight years.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    Yes.

  • JOHN YANG:

    What does it feel like?

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    It feels like that was a million years ago, but it feels like that million years has flown by.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Earnest took over from Jay Carney as White House press secretary in 2014.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    Today, the flak jacket is officially passed to a new generation, Mr. Josh Earnest.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    When he first offered me this job back in the summer of 2014, we were talking a little bit about what his expectations were for the person who was going to be in this role.

  • And he said:

    You know, one of the things you should know is, I don't intend to watch your briefing every day. And if there's ever a situation where you're prepared to walk out to the briefing, and there's something that you're not sure about or something you need to ask me about, then just let me know, and I will make sure that that have got an opportunity to come in here and talk to me before you have to go there and address the public.

    It's something that I have used frequently to make sure that the information that I'm conveying to the reporters in this room is not just accurate, but accurately reflects the president's thinking.

  • JOHN YANG:

    In 345 briefings, an exercise he's likened to catching javelins, Earnest has defended President Obama's policies.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    That's consistent with the president's vision since he took office, and it's also consistent with his record.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Bantered with reporters.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    I'm sure we will try to come up with something to talk about today.

  • JOHN YANG:

    And even raised eyebrows and drew criticism by mocking then candidate Donald Trump's appearance.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    The Trump campaign for months now has had a dustbin-of- history-like quality to it, from the vacuous sloganeering, to the outright lies, to even the fake hair.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Some critics accuse the administration of criminalizing investigative reporting by aggressively targeting leaks.

    Despite that, Earnest says the toughest part is the unrelenting pace.

    I don't think people appreciate how early you and other members of the White House staff get here every morning, the meetings you have early to get things going.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    So, that is the part of it that is challenging day after day after day. It's not that there is any one long day. It's that that long day is then followed up by another day that's moving at a pretty good pace.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Despite that, Earnest says he will miss the daily sense of purpose.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    When it's time to get to work, feeling this intense motivation to get the job done and get it done the right way. There's something that really stokes the internal fires about this job, that it's hard to imagine how that ever gets replaced, if it ever does.

  • MAN:

    We made a special one for him.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    Oh, wow.

  • JOHN YANG:

    There have been personal perks, like welcoming his beloved Kansas City Royals to the White House as 2015 World Series champs.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    You look so powerful.

  • JOHN YANG:

    And having his 2-year-old son, Walker, meet the president at Halloween.

  • WALKER EARNEST:

    That's POTUS.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    I know. That was POTUS.

  • JOHN YANG:

    But Earnest says dealing with the press day in and day out is serious business.

    What do you wish for Sean Spicer, your successor?

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    I hope he succeeds in this job. I think that it's a critically important job that requires the buy-in, not just of the person who's standing behind the podium, but by a whole White House staff that needs to be invested in his success.

  • JOHN YANG:

    As he prepares to leave the White House, Earnest thinks back to when he moved to Washington 16 years ago. He toured the White House in the closing days of the Clinton administration.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    I remember walking into this room. And I took a picture behind that podium, wearing my overcoat, and thought about what a special opportunity it would be to work here in the West Wing. In some ways, you know, my departure here really brings the whole thing full circle.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    So, Josh, congratulations.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    Thank you, sir.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • JOHN YANG:

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm John Yang at the White House.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you can find all of our conversations with outgoing members of the Obama administration and other coverage of achievements, controversies and challenges of the last eight years in The Obama Years.

    That's on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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