Jean-Pierre will be the first Black and the first openly LGBTQ person to serve as White House press secretary.
For years, a small group of influential Black communicators has quietly lobbied several administrations to appoint an African American to the podium.
The hit television show “Scandal” is based on Judy Smith, a former Bush press aide who became the first Black spokesperson to hold a briefing at the White House in 1991 and went on to become a crisis management expert. She never served as press secretary.
The nation elected the first Black president in 2008 in Barack Obama, and during his administration deputy press secretary Bill Burton was considered for the role. He was ultimately passed over, and three white men served as press secretary under Obama.
Now, Jean-Pierre will break the ceiling in the Biden administration in a moment that many will celebrate.
“You can’t understate how huge this is, how important it’s going to be to so many people of color who have and are working so hard in the communications field to see a Black LGBTQ woman representing the president of the United States at the podium,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau.
The change has also been noted within the administration.
“Twenty years ago, it was pretty hard to find a Black press secretary to a U.S. senator, cabinet secretary or presidential candidate,” said Jamal Simmons, who serves as communications director to Vice President Kamala Harris. “Now there will be a Black press secretary at the White House podium. President Biden has broken one more barrier for African Americans in politics.”
Jean-Pierre is taking over for veteran Democratic communicator Jen Psaki, whose official last day was Friday. She has served as Psaki’s deputy for the last 16 months, sometimes briefing reporters from the podium or aboard Air Force One.
Jean-Pierre steps into the role at an intense, critical moment. The White House is battling challenges on several fronts, from the Russian war in Ukraine to the critical supply chain issues and inflation at home to the COVID-19 pandemic. And with six months left until the midterm elections, Democrats are fearing the worst.
“I think being a White House press secretary is one of the hardest jobs in politics,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who served as a spokesman in the George W. Bush White House. “If there’s good news to announce you let the president do it, if there’s bad news, that falls to the press secretary.”
Those who know Jean-Pierre well say she’s up to the job.
“She’s a remarkable woman. She has a lot of experience. But the thing about White House press secretary is that your constituency is actually the American people,” said Donna Brazile, former acting Democratic National Committee chairwoman. “This is probably a different job than any job she’s ever done.”
Jean-Pierre brings to the table some different experience than her predecessor Psaki, who said last week that she has spent more time in the White House than anywhere else in her career.
Psaki also has more foreign policy experience, having served as a State Department spokeswoman.
Democrats who have risen through the ranks with Jean-Pierre say she will bring a different tenor to the White House press office and to the podium.
“For starters, she’s a political person. She’s an organizer,” said one Democrat who has known Jean-Pierre for years. “Psaki was born and bred as a flack. That’s not Karine.”
“Her personal style is more close to the vest,” the source said. “She’s not going to go for the jugular.”
The source said Jean-Pierre is a good fit for the podium job as the midterms approach.
“She can deliver a political message without the sharp elbows, without it seeming over the top,” the source said.
Democratic strategist Karen Finney added that because of Jean-Pierre’s organizing background, “she’ll bring a different perspective about how to frame some of these issues and talk about some of these in a way that will keep the conversation resonating with the American people.
“Bringing that sensibility to the conversation is a real service,” Finney added.
Jean-Pierre first got to know the Bidens in Obama’s White House and while working on the Obama and Biden campaigns. She also served as a spokesperson for the progressive group MoveOn and as an MSNBC commentator. A graduate of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, Jean-Pierre also returned to the college to teach for several years.
Ester Fuchs, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia who taught Jean-Pierre and also helped her get the teaching position, described her former student as “tough as nails,” well-prepared, smart, and driven. Fuchs recalled Jean-Pierre pushing to teach the course on political campaigning solo, despite her suggestion that she might try doing so as part of a team.
“She literally said to me, No. I really want to do it myself,” Fuchs said. “And I was really quite taken aback.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Jean-Pierre.
After Biden hired her to be chief of staff to Harris during the presidential election, she and the running mate often clashed, sources say. Some staffers on the campaign felt as though Jean-Pierre remained powerless in the role throughout the general election campaign. When Biden won, she moved over to his team in the West Wing.
Like her predecessor, Jean-Pierre is sure to become a target at times for attacks from Republicans.
Not long after Jean-Pierre was named, some conservatives criticized her over old tweets she wrote about Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s election over Democrat Stacy Abrams being “stolen.” She also referred to Trump’s election in 2016 as a “stolen election,” referencing the Russian hack of Democrats’ emails.
“Baseless stolen election claims undermine the integrity of our elections, regardless of who pushes them,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger said in a statement criticizing her appointment.
Jean-Pierre’s allies say she should pay no attention to the criticism.
“I would not allow Republicans to color anybody with crayons, because all they’re doing is throwing slime,” Brazile said.
Finney added that anyone in the administration will be targets of the right wing “because they are looking for ways to drive their very divisive, at times racist, sexist, bigoted agenda of using issues to divide people.
“We’ve seen particularly despicable attacks against black women from the vice president to [the Justice Department’s] Kirsten Clark and Judge [Ketanji] Jackson, so she’s in very esteemed company,” Finney added.
It’s not clear how different the regular briefings will be under Jean-Pierre, though she did commit Friday to holding daily briefings – something the Biden White House resurrected after four years of inconsistent press briefings under former President Donald Trump.
Psaki acknowledged last week that Jean-Pierre would “bring her own style” to the job. She also offered some words of advice for her successor: ask Biden a lot of questions and sit in on a lot of policy meetings.
“It is not about — and this is just broad advice to everybody, right, who’s doing this job in the future — this is not about reading talking points from a book,” Psaki told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast last week.
“It is about understanding policies to a level of depth that you can explain them to your mother-in-law to your friend on the street and answer the ninth question reporters may have about them.”