By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 1:39 AM
Few people outside Washington, and not many inside, have heard the name Pete Rouse. The man President Obama will name as his interim White House chief of staff on Friday is a quiet political player who avoids the spotlight. He does not suit up for the Sunday talk shows; there are no stories about him reducing staff members to tears for their slip-ups.
He is in many ways the opposite of Rahm Emanuel, the brash chief of staff he will replace.
While Emanuel spent nearly two years as a prominent public face of the Obama administration, Rouse sat just around the corner in the West Wing, fixing problems. A trusted adviser dating back to Obama's first days in the Senate, Rouse helped guide Obama's Washington rise. Obama once described Rouse as "completely ego-free."
Rouse, 64, will take the helm at a difficult moment. He will inherit a White House in flux, as the first wave of senior advisers is leaving. And with a sagging economy, tepid poll numbers and November's midterm elections all weighing on the White House, Rouse must help devise a new direction for the administration - while wrestling the competing factions that tug at any president.
The question being debated in and around the White House is whether Rouse - whose calm demeanor resembles that of Obama - will be tasked with managing that challenge for a few months, as his "interim" title suggests, or permanently. White House officials are divided on whether Obama will want to hand over the second half of his term to an insider or turn to someone new after the elections.
One thing is certain: Rouse will not lead by force of personality the way Emanuel has. Emanuel's legacy, after 20 months, will include the administration's many legislative accomplishments - among them the health-care reform law, the economic stimulus package and financial regulatory reform. He has been a strong advocate of consolidating power within the West Wing while keeping the sometimes-unwieldy Cabinet in check.
He will be remembered as a fierce protector of the president, as someone who used his massive Rolodex to generate ideas, and as a relentless manager whose daily 7:30 a.m. meetings were punctuated with sharp questions to senior advisers about what they had gotten done and what they planned to do next.
Yet Emanuel, who was initially reluctant to take the chief of staff job, ultimately turned back to his own political career as the natural two-year departure point for senior staff drew near. Emanuel, who will return to his home town of Chicago to run for mayor - a job he has long coveted - initially struggled with the decision in the days after Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his retirement.
"Rahm has been in a frenzy. He feels conflicted. He feels guilty," a senior administration official said Thursday night. But, the official said, "when the timing comes, with politics, you have to take it."
Colleagues said they expect to feel atmospheric changes in the White House immediately after the president makes his official announcement at 11 a.m. Friday in the East Room. Where Emanuel is brusque and demanding, Rouse is a more laconic figure who prefers resolving fights rather than picking them, aides said.
There is a reason Rouse has a reputation as a fixer. At a White House dinner Obama held for his top female advisers last fall, several of them shared stories about their colleagues, particularly Emanuel and economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers. The tales all had the same punch line, according to a person familiar with the dinner: "Either Rahm or Larry would do something horrible, and at the end of the day, Pete would come in to fix it."
By the end of the night, Obama was finishing the women's stories himself, saying, "Let me guess - Pete fixed it."
The president has repeatedly turned to Rouse as a fixer since they began working together six years ago.
When Obama was elected to the Senate, he asked Rouse to be his chief of staff. By then, Rouse was a legend on Capitol Hill. A longtime and powerful aide to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who had just been defeated, Rouse was known as the "101st senator." He had close relationships with senators and often helped to manage tricky negotiations.
Rouse wrote a strategic plan for Obama to follow in the Senate. Two years later, as Obama was preparing to run for president, he came up with a similar plan. As the 2008 campaign drew to a close, Rouse once again handed Obama a thick black binder, this time with ideas for setting up the White House if he won.
It was Rouse who arranged the presidential transition, hiring John Podesta to run it.
Over the past 20 months, Rouse has been handed a string of messy problems and told to cut across bureaucratic lines to fix them. In late 2009, Obama asked him to grapple with the administration's policy for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after it became clear that the president would miss his self-imposed deadline to close the prison there. Although the facility has not been closed, officials credit Rouse with getting the process under control and coming up with an alternate site in Illinois.
More recently, Rouse helped create the administration's new consumer protection bureau, navigating competing internal factions (including between Emanuel and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett) to make Elizabeth Warren a senior adviser to the bureau.
On a personal level, colleagues describe Rouse as a calming presence, someone who is an "honest broker" and treats lower-level staff members well. After Daschle lost, one adviser recalls, Rouse spent weeks helping campaign aides find new jobs.
Rouse is single and famously fond of the Maine Coon cats he keeps as pets. The voicemail greeting on his cellphone was recorded by Emanuel's children. Colleagues affectionately describe Rouse as obsessively devoted to work, one trait that he and Emanuel share.
But some insiders question whether Rouse will be forceful enough to keep the rival power centers in the West Wing in check. Where Emanuel had his own base and was in many ways the dominant generator of ideas within the White House, Rouse is considered more of an arbitrator. He is also viewed as unthreatening by other senior members of the staff.
That seems to be part of his appeal to the president. "I look for real smart people, people who place a premium on getting the job done, as opposed to getting credit," Obama said in a 2008 interview. "My chief of staff in the Senate, Pete Rouse, Tom Daschle's old chief of staff, is as well-connected, and as well-known and as popular and as smart and as savvy a person as there is on Capitol Hill. But is completely ego-free."
Carol Browner, the president's energy and environmental adviser, said Thursday: "In a place like this, people sometimes disagree. And he can work through those situations and get to agreement."
In the East Room announcement Friday, Obama is expected to thank Emanuel for his two-year tenure. It will not be a fond farewell for everyone in the Democratic Party. Some liberals are already bidding him good riddance after what they consider too much compromise and too little effort on behalf of progressive causes.
Friends of Emanuel's said he is not troubled by criticism of the job he has done. He views liberals' anger "as the price you pay for making decisions," said a close friend.
Internally, aides said Emanuel will be difficult to follow, if for no other reason than he "pushed everyone," one senior adviser said. Asked what he will best be remembered for, the aide answered: "The sheer force of will to get things done."
Staff writers Karen Tumulty, Shailagh Murray, Scott Wilson and Paul Kane contributed to this report.