Miguel Rodriguez is President Obama’s new director of legislative affairs. That makes him the president’s Congress whisperer and arm-twister, tasked with convincing Republican lawmakers of the virtues of Obama’s agenda.
Yet six weeks into the job, many of the Republicans Rodriguez needs to lobby hardly know anything about him. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s aides say they haven’t met him yet. House Speaker John A. Boehner’s aides say they have no basis to judge him by because they’ve talked with him just once. And the word from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office? They don’t know him.
As one Senate GOP leadership aide wrote in an e-mail, “NOBODY knows who the hell he is.”
Inside a Capitol where deals are greased by relationships, Rodriguez seems to have very few. But senior White House officials say that is one of the reasons Obama picked him — viewing Rodriguez as an unblemished broker who doesn’t carry baggage from the president’s tumultuous first term.
Obama’s advisers believe the days of backroom deals are over; months of failed fiscal negotiations with Boehner in 2011 taught them that. Rodriguez, a 41-year-old Takoma Park native, is approaching the job more as a translator than a salesman, looking discreetly for areas where both parties might agree and finessing troublesome issues that present obstacles, Obama’s advisers said.
Rob Nabors, a White House deputy chief of staff and Rodriguez’s predecessor as chief liaison to Congress, said Rodriguez exudes “a dedication to his boss and getting the job done that really is sort of refreshing.”
“There is no aggrandizement of him or his views on anything that he does,” Nabors added. “I couldn’t tell you what his position on anything was beyond ‘This is what the president wants me to do, I’m going to go figure out how to get it done.’ ”
Obama’s advisers see a window of less than 18 months to cement the president’s legacy before midterm election season and, after that, the race to succeed him. It falls to Rodriguez — a soft-spoken and shy son of Hispanic immigrants born and raised in Montgomery County — to facilitate bipartisan accords on everything from fiscal policy to immigration to guns.
Top Republicans were puzzled by Rodriguez’s appointment at a time when the president has begun a schmooze-a-thon with Capitol Hill. Some didn’t notice at all.
“The White House legislative affairs operation, I think, is pretty weak,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), an influential Republican who has broken ranks with his party to back the administration on issues including the “fiscal cliff” and the Violence Against Women Act. “I could not tell you right now who the White House director of legislative affairs is.”
Some Democrats, however, say that glad-handing is overrated, especially in an environment where most Republicans remain steadfastly opposed to the president’s agenda.
“I appreciate that this town works in knowing everybody and having a beer, but I don’t actually think that’s the most important thing for this job,” said Neera Tanden, chief executive of the Center for American Progress, who has worked with Rodriguez. “Where the rubber hits the road is how you look at an intractable problem and whether you can come up with a solution.”
Former Rodriguez colleague Laurie Rubiner, now chief of staff to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), said that many senior aides “forget that they’re not the 101st senator or the other Cabinet member.
“Miguel, that’s not what he’s about,” she added. “Sometimes just having somebody there who you know is not trying to promote themselves but just get to ‘yes’ could be very helpful.”
Almost a decade ago, Rodriguez quit his job in a corporate law firm and, leaping at the chance to enter public service, answered an ad for an unpaid fellowship in the office of then-Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.). A few months later, the senator started paying Rodriguez, and when he left to run for governor in 2005, Rodriguez moved into Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s fold. He served first as her chief counsel and later added the legislative director title.
Rodriguez handled some of Clinton’s more sensitive matters, including the quandary of how to resign. On Jan. 21, 2009, once the Senate approved her nomination to be secretary of state, Clinton was eager to attend Obama’s first meeting with his national security team. So she hastily arranged to take her oath. A federal judge was summoned. A Bible was procured.
But first, Clinton had to give up her Senate seat.
“Apparently it’s not that simple,” recalled Philippe Reines, Clinton’s longtime spokesman. “Miguel had to figure it out. . . . He sat in a desk right outside her inner office working it. He was writing letters on the fly, and they had to be hand-delivered.”
Clinton and other aides grew anxious, Reines said, but Rodriguez was “cool as a cucumber.” He completed Clinton’s resignation, and she made it to the White House meeting, only a little late.
Rodriguez followed Clinton to the State Department, where he was deputy assistant secretary overseeing the department’s relations with the Senate and shepherded more than 250 confirmations. Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, said Rodriguez’s key ingredient was his humility.
“He’s very smart about getting things done without insisting on his own ways,” Mills said. “On a call with 10 different voices talking, Miguel won’t be one of those voices until he’s listened to what other people have to say.”
While he was part of Clinton’s team, Rodriguez caught the attention of Nabors, who recruited him into Obama’s orbit. In October 2011, Rodriguez joined the legislative affairs shop, where he handled mostly foreign affairs and national security issues. That included the administration’s dealings with Congress surrounding last September’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Once the attack piqued the interests of lawmakers, there were dozens of hearings, some of them classified. Senators and representatives had reports to review and questions they wanted answered about Benghazi. With the integrity and reputations of both Obama and Clinton on the line, Rodriguez emerged as a behind-the-scenes point person, colleagues said.
“Miguel was not just in the thick of it; he was at the forefront of it,” Reines said. “It was just an around-the-clock effort, and we leaned on Miguel as if he never left State.”
Obama appointed Rodriguez as legislative affairs director, and he has also become a key player on immigration. Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said his family history informs his work.
“The way you see it is in the quality of his heart and how he connects to his colleagues and how committed he is to the kind of work we’re trying to get done,” Muñoz said. “It shows up in this quiet and potent way.”
Rodriguez’s mother, Maria Isabel, emigrated in 1962 from Chile. She waited more than two years for a visa to come to the United States and learned English once she arrived. His father, Miguel, emigrated from Colombia, where he was the second youngest of 11 siblings raised in a small pueblo.
Rodriguez’s parents met on a blind date while his father was studying at Georgetown University. His dad, a doctor, opened a one-man practice in Takoma Park catering to the Latino community. His mother worked the front desk.
When his parents dropped him off for the first day of kindergarten, Rodriguez knew almost no English. Education was important to his parents, so they sent him to Mater Dei, a Catholic school in Bethesda, and later Georgetown Preparatory School. Rodriguez went on to the University of Pennsylvania, earning bachelor’s and law degrees.
In those environs, Rodriguez learned to absorb different viewpoints. Colleagues point to his lack of an ideological edge as an asset.
Rodriguez has what he tells friends is a “mixed marriage.” His wife, Traci, is a Republican lawyer who once worked in former president George W. Bush’s Justice Department. They married in 2006 and have two children, Ella, 4, and Leo, 2.
The relationship mirrors that of Rodriguez’s parents. His father was a liberal Democrat, while his mother was a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution. A Republican campaign volunteer, she shuttled Spanish speakers to and from the polls.
“He is not a partisan guy,” said Richard Verma, who was Rodriguez’s boss at the State Department. “He doesn’t hold a grudge — and even for people who can get a little dicey, he seems to find a way to work with people and find consensus.”
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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