KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Robert Gibbs leans into presidential candidate Barack Obama at an airplane-maintenance hangar scheduled for more layoffs and whips out an index card where he has scrawled the latest data on how many Americans have lost health-care insurance in the workplace.
“I’ve got it, I know,” says Sen. Obama, who playfully adds: “That is why I’m running for president.”
But Mr. Gibbs pushes on, even as the senator heads toward gathered workers he is about to address. “These are just-released statistics,” Mr. Gibbs says. “Use them to hit hard on the economy, and we’ll play to the news.”
Just as Sen. Obama is introduced, Mr. Gibbs, pleased that his candidate will be appearing before blue-collar workers “rather than in some high-school gym,” rushes to the new-media campaign aide to video Sen. Obama with the order: “Get this up on You Tube fast.”
As the Obama campaign enters a crucial phase, beset by tightened polling numbers and the prospect of a tough race for the next two months, Mr. Gibbs has emerged as Sen. Obama’s advocate-in-chief with the media, and therefore the voters. The 37-year-old is in charge of shaping his message, responding to the 24/7 news cycle, schmoozing with the press and fighting back when he disagrees with its reporting — which has won him the label of “the enforcer.” Mr. Gibbs, who says he tries “to attract more flies with honey than vinegar” most of the time, confirms, “I work the referees a little bit if they’re unfair or inaccurate. The other side is working on them, too….I’m a protector of the image.”
Most important, Mr. Gibbs must keep the candidate, sometimes known for being lackluster and cranky when he is tired, upbeat. As the aide who was with Sen. Obama at the 2004 Democratic convention speech that started it all, he has been by his side nearly every day since, even accompanying the Obama family on their recent Hawaiian vacation. (On the last night there, Barack and Michelle Obama sent Mr. Gibbs and his wife to the Obamas’ favorite restaurant and babysat their five-year-old son.)
“Robert is the guy I want in the foxhole with me during incoming fire,” Sen. Obama says in an interview. “If I’m wrong, he challenges me. He’s not intimidated by me.” As to whether Mr. Gibbs keeps him happy, “he never does,” Sen. Obama jokes.
Mr. Gibbs, an Alabama native whom Sen. Obama dubs his “one-person Southern focus group,” is part of the close-knit team on the campaign trail with chief strategist David Axelrod, national trip director Marvin Nicholson and “body man” Reggie Love. On the campaign plane, he sits in one of the four club chairs in the front private compartment with the candidate. Once, on a dare from another campaign aide, he bench-pressed 250 pounds at the gym when Sen. Obama was working out. He says he thinks about winning the presidential election every minute of their 18-hour days.
After serving as Sen. Obama’s communications chief during his 2004 run for the Senate, Mr. Gibbs moved into the same role for the presidential campaign. But in the spring of 2007, when Democratic rival Hillary Clinton was far ahead in the polls despite the Illinois senator’s unexpectedly strong fund raising, Sen. Obama was falling flat on the stump, even with his oratorical skills. Mr. Gibbs met with campaign manager David Plouffe and Mr. Axelrod to discuss “why Barack wasn’t happy or firing on all cylinders,” he recalls. “Let me go out with him and see if I can help,” Mr. Gibbs volunteered, because he had traveled earlier with Sen. Obama frequently to his home state of Illinois and even on an African trip. Once out, he never returned to Chicago headquarters.
During the opening days of the Democratic convention, Mr. Gibbs has focused on putting the best spin on his man and his message.
When he pitched Mrs. Obama’s speech to the TV-network anchors and producers, he laid on thick the hard-luck story of Mrs. Obama’s childhood when her blue-collar father had multiple sclerosis, and Fox News anchor Brit Hume cut him off, jokingly saying, “Stop there — you’ve got my vote.” Mr. Gibbs replied, “Well. I’m done here!”
When another Fox anchor, Chris Wallace, asked how to pronounce the last name of Sen. Obama’s half-sister, Mr. Gibbs didn’t know. “I just call her Maya.” Later, Mr. Gibbs spotted a banner reading “Rednecks for Obama.” Delighted to chat with fellow Southerners, Mr. Gibbs took one of their bumper stickers saying the same thing, and promised, “I’ll put this up in the campaign plane!” On Monday night backstage with Mrs. Obama, he hugged her as she came off the stage with daughter Sasha in her arms. Sen. Obama emailed Messrs. Plouffe and Gibbs, “I thought my wife was pretty damn good.”
Early Tuesday, he headed to Kansas City to join Sen. Obama on the stump. At the Denver airport, he woke up his attorney wife to tell her his next destination and to give “a high five to my guy,” their son. On the way to the event here, Mr. Gibbs worked his cellphone and ran through about a hundred emails. Even as Sen. Obama spoke to the airplane maintenance workers, Mr. Gibbs jumped behind the rope lines to encourage the traveling press and local media outlets to take note that Sen. Obama was coming out swinging against Republican rival John McCain on the economy and trying out lines that he would use at Thursday night’s convention speech.
Then he hopped into the Obama motorcade to its next destination — having not eaten or gone to the bathroom for eight hours.