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The Outsider's Insider
Building a Reputation
Three years ago, Obama was serving in the Illinois state Senate; Rouse was running the office of Daschle, the U.S. Senate majority leader, and hoping to steer his boss and longtime patron to the presidency. Then Daschle lost his reelection bid in 2004 -- the same year Obama won his Senate seat.
After Daschle lost, he had hoped Rouse would join him working outside of government; the two remain close. But that November, Cassandra Butts, a friend of Obama's since they were students at Harvard Law School together, called Rouse about meeting with Obama. It was a long shot to think he would work for a freshman senator, but worth it, she figured.
So Obama, the charismatic rising star who was being deluged with resumes from people eager to work for him and requests from magazines that wanted him on their covers, went to work trying to persuade a man 15 years his senior to help him.
Obama, first made famous by his rousing oration at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, joked with Rouse that "I can give a good speech" but said he knew little about organizing a Senate office.
"What I want do is form a partnership," Obama said.
In hiring Rouse, whose mother was Japanese and whose father is white, Obama turned down several black candidates (there are only a few black chiefs of staff in the Senate) who sought the post but had less experience.
"The only possible negative was, thinking of Barack as a new kind of politician, you're choosing someone who is very rooted in the Senate and the ways of Washington," said Butts of picking Rouse. "That was a con in perception that we could live with when his pros were so obvious."
With help from Gibbs and Axelrod, Rouse wrote a detailed memo for Obama's first year in the Senate. What they came to call "The Strategic Plan" laid out for Obama the approach adopted by Hillary Rodham Clinton when she entered the Senate in 2001: Show respect to other senators even though you're a star, don't let your constituents think you are forgetting them, and find ways to build relationships with colleagues, particularly those in the opposite party.
Under Rouse's guidance, Obama built close relations with one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), working with him to pass a bill that creates a Google-like search system and database to help Americans easily search government spending. He worked with another Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), to increase U.S. funding to find and dispose of loose antiaircraft missiles and other weapons in the former Soviet Union.
This approach created some vulnerabilities for Obama as a potential 2008 candidate. His focus on becoming an effective senator rather than a liberal fire-breather did not endear him to the left-leaning bloggers who have become an increasingly important constituency in the Democratic Party.
Obama had always opposed the Iraq war, one of the left's biggest issues, but in his first two years in the Senate, he did not make it his focus. He gave few speeches on the war and voted for funding it while opposing timetables for withdrawal -- both stances that he has reversed since he started running for president.
On an issue even more delicate on the Hill, Rouse warned Obama to be careful how he pursued congressional ethics legislation -- a cause bound to irritate some other senators. Obama, pushed by Gibbs, went as far as voting against an ethics bill that most Senate Democrats supported last year, although under Rouse's guidance, he steered clear of publicly criticizing Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) for what he felt was a weak bill.