09.30.10

Obama's New Fixer

Pete Rouse, set to be named interim White House chief of staff, is the temperamental opposite of Rahm Emanuel. Lloyd Grove on the cat-loving bachelor who manages down in a city of suck-ups.

“I fix things,” Pete Rouse told a reporter last year, describing his portfolio in the Obama White House.

Now that President Obama has decided to promote Rouse from senior adviser to chief of staff, making him official on Friday as the “interim” successor to the Chicago-bound Rahm Emanuel, Rouse will have a lot of fixing to do. The administration’s widely perceived failure to revive the flagging economy and the war in Afghanistan are just two daunting problems confronting the next chief of staff.

But Rouse—who, at 64, is 15 years older than the president and the most experienced hand on deck aside from Joe Biden—seems uniquely equipped for the task. Having toiled on Capitol Hill for nearly four decades—interrupted only by a few years in Alaska running the lieutenant governor’s office in the early 1980s—Rouse has mastered the inner workings of Washington. And, as the longtime top aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, he has dealt with just about every issue and outsize ego in American politics.

In short, he’s a grownup.

Rouse can be expected to handle his latest job just like the previous ones: quietly, calmly, with a minimum of fuss—a style perfectly suited to “No Drama Obama.” A lifelong bachelor who keeps cats, he is so seemingly unbeguiled by the trappings of power that instead of using his VIP seat at Obama’s inauguration, he stayed home with his feline friends and watched on television.

“He’s completely mission-oriented. It’s never about Pete Rouse,” former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles said.

He fits Louis Brownlow’s famous ideal of a White House aide: He has “a passion for anonymity”—an attitude that will be more difficult to maintain now that Sarah Palin has started tweeting about him. “Pete Rouse… finally comes out of the shadows,” the former governor and Dancing With the Stars audience member posted last week on her Twitter page. “Obama looks to appt him COS: strange doings in the WH. (Rahm’s the smart one… bailing before Nov).”

Unlike the swashbuckling Emanuel, a former congressman from Illinois, Rouse does not lend himself to colorful anecdotes. He doesn’t breathe four-letter words. He doesn’t mug for the camera or flip people off with a stumpy finger (the result, in Emanuel’s case, of a freak meat-slicing accident). He has no wish to be speaker of the House (Emanuel’s previous ambition), or (his current goal) mayor of Chicago. And he never sent a dead fish to a rival.

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In some ways, Rouse is the anti-Rahm.

“He’s completely mission-oriented. It’s never about Pete Rouse,” former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, his friend of 16 years, told The Daily Beast. “It’s always about what the issue is and how he can advance the agenda. And he doesn’t just give out information—he receives information. He’s a good listener and he’s incredibly thoughtful. That is the root of his success.”

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter got to know Rouse in researching The Promise, Alter’s book about President Obama’s action-packed first year. “He’s a tremendously decent guy who is known by the president for managing down in a city where almost everybody else manages up,” Alter said. “All the younger people in the White House revere him. He actually cares about them. He’ll improve morale.”

Alter added that Rouse, by virtue of his decades as a Senate staffer, “has as good relations in the Senate as Rahm Emanuel had in the House”—a valuable commodity at a time when the Senate, more often than not, runs the legislative table.

In late 2004, after Daschle lost his Senate seat to Republican John Thune, Rouse was planning to retire. But then Illinois’ newly elected senator, Barack Obama, recruited him to oversee his legislative and political agenda, and Rouse’s canny strategic insights helped position his young boss to run for the presidency—a possibility Rouse saw early on, back in 2006, and urged Obama to consider.    

“Pete has been with Senator-elect, Senator, President-elect, and now President Obama,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, another member of Obama’s Senate staff, said on Thursday during his regular briefing. “There’s a complete loyalty and trust with somebody like Pete. 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. So I think the type of trust that the president and others throughout this administration have in Pete is enormous.”

It is unclear at this point whether “interim” will become permanent. In Washington, of course, very little is permanent.  

Samuel P. Jacobs contributed to this report.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.