Emanuel's replacement is known as a fixer
Friday, October 1, 2010
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."