By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007; A01
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.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.
When the Senate last month approved a bill that banned lawmakers from flying on corporate jets at discounted rates and required disclosure of the names of lobbyists who also serve as "bundlers," rounding up contributions for candidates, Obama touted his role in getting it passed.
"Pete knows that when you're first elected to the Senate, you've got to pay your dues, visit with senior senators and deliver for your home state," said Chris Lu, Obama's legislative director. "But Pete recognized that Obama's appeal was that he was an outsider and would never be a typical senator, so Pete helped Obama find the delicate balance between being a rank-and-file senator and high-profile national figure."Building a Campaign
By last fall, two years after he was elected to the Senate, Obama had a second best-selling book, received invitations to speak even in conservative states such as Nebraska and was starting to seriously consider a run for the White House, far sooner than he -- or Rouse -- had anticipated.
Rouse, who organized a presidential operation in 2002 for Daschle before the South Dakotan decided not to run, swung into action. In September, when Obama decided to travel to Iowa to test the waters, Rouse called Steve Hildebrand, an old friend from the Daschle operation who ran Al Gore's Iowa campaign in 2000, to show him around the state, even though the pair had never met.
"I thought, let's have a little fun with this. I wanted to create a little buzz," Rouse said. And he did.
Three other campaigns quickly called Hildebrand, wanting to hire him before Obama formally decided to enter the race.
In November, when more than a dozen advisers met with Obama in Axelrod's Chicago office to discuss running, it was Rouse who had prepared the memos detailing how Obama could win and the pros and cons of running in 2008 versus waiting.
And after Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) decided against a presidential bid in December, it was Rouse who called Bayh's communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, the next day. Rouse, who had hired Pfeiffer in 2002 for what they thought would be Daschle's presidential campaign, wanted him to join the Obama team.
"Do you know what a sense of dï¿½jï¿½ vu I'm having?" Pfeiffer asked Rouse.
This time, though, Rouse's man was running. And the team of advisers that Rouse had built for Daschle would prove key at a time when many top Democratic operatives, veterans of the Clinton White House, were signing up for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Rouse personally recruited several Daschle veterans, including Pfeiffer; Hildebrand, who now manages Obama's operations in the early states such as Iowa; and Julianna Smoot, who directs the campaign's prodigious fundraising.
When Daschle was considering whom to support for president, Rouse recruited him, too, telling his old boss that they needed his endorsement early to show that Obama had the backing of some key Establishment figures. Daschle obliged, announcing his support for Obama in February; now, he has occasional dinners with the candidate to advise him on policy.
As the campaign heats up and the Senate continues to focus on Iraq, a key campaign issue, there is constant lobbying on all sides for Obama's time. Rouse, aware that the Senate's Democratic leaders often need the candidates in town to help them prevail on close votes, frequently wants him on Capitol Hill. Advisers in the early states argue that he should be in the places where the campaign is being waged, while the Chicago staff is wary of Obama skipping events by groups in the Democratic Party and leaving them feeling snubbed.
While Obama was in Southeast Washington giving a campaign speech on urban poverty last month, Rouse was imploring Gibbs to make sure that the senator didn't miss a vote that was happening across town -- the Democratic leadership needed Obama's vote to win. Obama, who has missed 59 votes this year, compared with Clinton's 11, did miss that vote, but because a Republican missed it too, the Democrats still won.
"On these tough votes," said one of Obama's top Senate aides, "he has to be here. There are votes you just can't miss."
Even with Obama increasingly absent, Rouse plays a major advisory role. In June, as aides worried that Obama's media operation wasn't responding quickly enough to the veteran Clinton team, Rouse helped engineer a shift in roles: Gibbs, who has worked with Obama since the 2004 Senate campaign, would travel with the candidate, while Pfeiffer would return from the road and help manage the media office in Chicago.
And Rouse continues to educate Obama on how to be an effective senator. Weeks before Obama announced in January that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee, Rouse told his boss to meet with Edward M. Kennedy and Joseph I. Lieberman, two senators who were taking over committees on which Obama serves, to show that he still respected his more senior colleagues. He arrived with signed copies of his best-selling book "The Audacity of Hope" that they could give to others.
There have been limits, though, to Rouse's success at forging close ties between Obama and his Senate colleagues. In the race for senators' endorsements, Obama has received just one: that of his fellow Illinois Democrat, Sen. Richard J. Durbin.
Then again, even that may be a Rouse special. Durbin's chief of staff back when he was a congressman? Pete Rouse.