Outgoing White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is called a lot of things, but “selfless” is not often among them. No one says he shuns the limelight, or has a low-key personality, or prefers to give credit for his accomplishments to others.
But then no one has ever before had much reason to compare Emanuel’s hyperkinetic, no-holds-barred leadership style to the cool and steady behind-the-scenes reputation of Pete Rouse, the senior White House adviser slated to become President Obama’s next chief of staff.
In fact, the stylistic contrast between Emanuel and Rouse could not be more striking. “One of them is all about self-promotion and the other is all about self-deprecation,” says one adviser to the White House, who spoke Thursday on the condition of anonymity. Whereas Emanuel was known for his excitable, profanity-laced management, there is little historical record of Rouse ever so much as raising his voice. Where Emanuel is known for his acumen in winning short-term political battles, Rouse is respected as master of the long game.
“He’s the boss that is going to value you more if you do a memo and put your colleague’s name on it,” the adviser continued, describing Rouse’s style. “You will never read in a million years a Dana Milbank column that says the president should have listened more to Pete Rouse.”
President Obama has scheduled an event in the East Room Friday at 11 a.m., where he is expected to announce that Emanuel will step down to pursue a campaign to become mayor of Chicago and that Rouse will take over the job, at least for the interim. The changing of the guard signals the end of the first major phase of Obama’s presidency, with its focus on major legislative accomplishments. Over the next two years, Rouse, or whomever succeeds him, will be charged with steering the executive branch through a much more difficult political and legislative waters, given the expected gains by Republicans in the coming midterm elections.
Despite the public profile of a mid-level bureaucrat, Rouse has been perhaps the most important single Washington staffer in the president’s orbit since 2004, when Obama won election to the Senate. A onetime staff aid to Alaska Lt. Gov. Terry Miller working in Juneau, Rouse rose to one of the most powerful staff jobs in the U.S. Capitol as the chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. After taking over the top staff job in Obama’s Senate office, and hiring its staff, Rouse wrote the first memo laying out the strategy for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He then helped to lead the transition, staffing the White House with many aides he had long known and worked with, like legislative director Phil Schiliro.
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declined to confirm leaks that said Emanuel would be replaced Friday by Rouse. But Gibbs did jump at a chance to offer words of praise for Rouse. “Pete’s strategic sense has played a big part of the direction of virtually every big decision that’s made inside of this White House,” Gibbs said. “So I think the type of trust that the President and others throughout this administration have in Pete is enormous.”
In practice, Rouse has played the role of organizational troubleshooter over the last 20 months, taking over tough legislative and political challenges, from the haggling over global warming legislation to the planning to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Aides have compared him to the fictional Winston Wolf, a character played by Harvey Keitel in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. He is the guy that gets called when a problem needs to be fixed.
It is still unclear how long Rouse will stay on the job, but there is unlikely to be much blowback in Democratic circles to his selection. In a city where professional enmity is a sport, Rouse has a record of building lasting relationships. “Pete Rouse probably has more people in Washington who say genuinely nice thing about him that are true than anyone else,” said the adviser.