By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 12:39 PM
President Obama on Friday announced his highest-level changing of the guard, naming a longtime aide of few words, Pete Rouse, to replace on an interim basis the irrepressible Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff.
In an East Room event attended by senior staff and Cabinet members, Obama called Emanuel, who resigned to begin an expected run for mayor of Chicago, someone "I could count on day and night to get the job done."
"This is a bittersweet day at the White House," Obama said. "On the one hand, we are all very excited for Rahm as he takes on a new challenge for which he is extraordinarily well qualified. But we're also losing an incomparable leader of our staff and one who we are going to miss very much."
Emanuel left his congressional seat and place in the House leadership to become Obama's chief of staff, and he ran the White House during a time of economic tumult, two wars and a hardening political partisanship in Washington that the president has said surprised him by its intensity.
Emanuel received a standing ovation from the East Room audience when he entered beside Obama and Rouse, who remained several steps away from the podium throughout the event.
For 20 months, Emanuel was the first to see Obama in the morning, and the last to speak to him each evening before the president headed to the residence. He embraced Obama twice before delivering sometimes emotional remarks, as his wife and three children watched from the audience.
A consummate political player, Emanuel made clear he wanted the White House to constantly work to set the agenda, telling aides early on that "in this town if you're not pitching, you're catching." Emanuel thanked his staff for their patience.
Although he has helped shepherd a legislative agenda that ranks among the most productive in decades, Emanuel, 50, has also infuriated the left-wing of the Democratic Party with a compromising style that focuses more on achieving the possible if the perfect is out of reach. Democratic activists say the approach is partly to blame for the lack of enthusiasm within the party's base this midterm election season.
"Rahm has exceeded all of my expectations," Obama said. "It's fair to say that we could not have accomplished what we've accomplished without Rahm's leadership."
Presiding over his final 8:30 a.m. staff meeting, Emanuel said goodbye to about 30 White House officials gathered for the event in the Roosevelt Room, telling them through some tears that "I know I pushed you hard."
Austan Goolsbee, Obama's chief economic adviser and amateur comedian, then handed Emanuel a dead fish wrapped in a pair of Chicago's major newspapers. The gift evoked an infamous moment in Emanuel lore when he sent a dead fish to a political opponent.
The Asian carp was also meant to poke fun at Emanuel's work in trying to prevent the non-native fish from infesting the Great Lakes, an issue that may consume some more of his time if he wins the mayor's race early next year.
"He is a very talented political leader, and he's able to focus on the core of an issue to keep the ball rolling," said Carol Browner, Obama's chief energy and climate change adviser, who first met Emanuel 24 years ago in Chicago when both were doing political organizing there. "It's never slow with Rahm."
Although he did not formally announce his candidacy, Emanuel said, "I'm excited to be heading home to Chicago, which as you know very well, Mr. President, is the greatest city in the greatest country in the world.
"I'm energized by the prospect of new challenges and eager to see what I can do to make our home town even greater," he said.
Rouse, 64, will bring a far different style to the chief of staff job. Obama called him one of his "closest and most essential advisers" who brings "customary clarity and common purpose" to his work.
A taciturn trouble-shooter who avoids the limelight as much as Emanuel relishes it, Rouse provides Obama with continuity, having served as his chief of staff in the U.S. Senate. Obama said Rouse has "never seen a microphone or TV camera that he likes."
Rouse, whose interim status could become permanent, is expected to focus on reorganizing the West Wing to better coordinate policy making with the political operation as the midterm campaign season soon gives way to Obama's own reelection efforts.
"Pete's known as a skillful problem solver," Obama said. "And the good news for him is that we have plenty of problems to solve."
MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON POST: