As one Senate GOP leadership aide wrote in an e-mail, “NOBODY knows who the hell he is.”
Inside a Capitol where deals are greased by relationships, Rodriguez seems to have very few. But senior White House officials say that is one of the reasons Obama picked him — viewing Rodriguez as an unblemished broker who doesn’t carry baggage from the president’s tumultuous first term.
Obama’s advisers believe the days of backroom deals are over; months of failed fiscal negotiations with Boehner in 2011 taught them that. Rodriguez, a 41-year-old Takoma Park native, is approaching the job more as a translator than a salesman, looking discreetly for areas where both parties might agree and finessing troublesome issues that present obstacles, Obama’s advisers said.
Rob Nabors, a White House deputy chief of staff and Rodriguez’s predecessor as chief liaison to Congress, said Rodriguez exudes “a dedication to his boss and getting the job done that really is sort of refreshing.”
“There is no aggrandizement of him or his views on anything that he does,” Nabors added. “I couldn’t tell you what his position on anything was beyond ‘This is what the president wants me to do, I’m going to go figure out how to get it done.’ ”
Obama’s advisers see a window of less than 18 months to cement the president’s legacy before midterm election season and, after that, the race to succeed him. It falls to Rodriguez — a soft-spoken and shy son of Hispanic immigrants born and raised in Montgomery County — to facilitate bipartisan accords on everything from fiscal policy to immigration to guns.
Top Republicans were puzzled by Rodriguez’s appointment at a time when the president has begun a schmooze-a-thon with Capitol Hill. Some didn’t notice at all.
“The White House legislative affairs operation, I think, is pretty weak,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), an influential Republican who has broken ranks with his party to back the administration on issues including the “fiscal cliff” and the Violence Against Women Act. “I could not tell you right now who the White House director of legislative affairs is.”
Some Democrats, however, say that glad-handing is overrated, especially in an environment where most Republicans remain steadfastly opposed to the president’s agenda.
“I appreciate that this town works in knowing everybody and having a beer, but I don’t actually think that’s the most important thing for this job,” said Neera Tanden, chief executive of the Center for American Progress, who has worked with Rodriguez. “Where the rubber hits the road is how you look at an intractable problem and whether you can come up with a solution.”