The Outsider's Insider

(By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007

Sen. Barack Obama had hired Pete Rouse for just such a moment.

It was the fall of 2005, and the celebrated young senator -- still new to Capitol Hill but aware of his prospects for higher office -- was thinking about voting to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice. Talking with his aides, the Illinois Democrat expressed admiration for Roberts's intellect. Besides, Obama said, if he were president he wouldn't want his judicial nominees opposed simply on ideological grounds.

And then Rouse, his chief of staff, spoke up. This was no Harvard moot-court exercise, he said. If Obama voted for Roberts, Rouse told him, people would remind him of that every time the Supreme Court issued another conservative ruling, something that could cripple a future presidential run. Obama took it in. And when the roll was called, he voted no.

"Pete's very good at looking around the corners of decisions and playing out the implications of them," Obama said an interview when asked about that discussion. "He's been around long enough that he can recognize problems and pitfalls a lot quicker than others can."

Pete Rouse is the Outsider's Insider, a fixer steeped in the ways of a Washington that Obama has been both eager to learn and quick to publicly condemn. The meticulous workaholic rose through three decades of unglamorous legislating to become arguably the most influential Democratic aide in the Senate when he worked for then-Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.).

"His familiarity with Washington makes him somebody whose judgment I trust," Obama said. And yet this is the Washington of "cheap political points" and "petty" partisanship that figures prominently in Obama's public speeches these days. "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington," Obama tells his audiences. "But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

That has made Rouse's job of introducing Obama to Capitol Hill a complicated balancing act: He seeks to burnish Obama's still-modest credentials as a freshman senator while preventing the talented but inexperienced politician from making the kind of mistakes that have denied every senator since John F. Kennedy the presidency. "My role," he said with classic staffer discretion, is simply "to help him accomplish his priorities."

Others credit their unlikely pairing -- Rouse, a stubby 61-year-old, first started work in the Senate in 1971, when Obama was a 10-year-old in Hawaii with basketball dreams -- with helping to fuel Obama's turbocharged rise to become one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. "Barack Obama's rapid political ascent would not have been possible without Pete," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who has worked with Rouse and is now advising the campaign of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.).

At his campaign headquarters in Chicago, Obama has assembled a strong team of political veterans to complement -- and at times, compete with -- Rouse's formidable Washington experience. His campaign manager is David Plouffe, and a top strategist is David Axelrod, two longtime Democratic operatives and former partners in a political consulting firm. A third influential campaign voice is that of Robert Gibbs, who was Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign press secretary in 2003; he travels full time with Obama as the campaign's communications director.

Plouffe and Axelrod have pushed the candidate away from traditional Democratic constituency-group politics, convinced that Obama is a unique figure who shouldn't expect significant backing from the Democratic establishment and won't need it anyway.

As the center of gravity in Obama's world shifts away from Capitol Hill and toward his campaign headquarters, Rouse has been carefully monitoring the increasingly anti-Washington tone. When, for example, Obama's campaign team wanted him to propose banning anyone who serves in his administration from lobbying it after leaving, Rouse warned about the consequences: a recruiting problem for the Obama White House.

The campaign announced it anyway.

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