With his choice of Pete Rouse to temporarily replace Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff, President Barack Obama is seeking to recapture the “no drama’ culture that defined his early years in Washington.
At the same time, Rouse, a veteran Capitol Hill staff member and a part of the president’s cast of advisers since Obama arrived in Washington, represents continuity and a signal that Obama isn’t looking for a major course correction before November’s election.
“If he wanted major change, he would have gone outside the administration,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It is not a transition in which we should expect some real change in direction.”
The change mostly will come in style. Rouse is replacing a chief of staff known for his combative, fast-paced and intense managerial style. Emanuel is leaving the administration to explore a run for mayor of his hometown, Chicago.
Rouse, 64, under consideration for permanent appointment, is less confrontational and more conciliatory than Emanuel, according to current and former colleagues, and is more likely to try to defuse disputes instead of escalating them.
Emanuel and Rouse “have slightly different styles,” Obama joked in announcing the change. “Pete has never seen a microphone or TV camera he likes.”
Still, Rouse may find himself at the forefront of more fights with Congress if Republicans win a majority in the House in November’s midterm elections and shrink the Democrats’ edge in the Senate.
Rouse went to work for Obama when the freshman Illinois senator hired him as his chief of staff after former Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s 2004 defeat. Rouse was Daschle’s chief of staff. With his knowledge of Congress, Rouse helped school Obama on the ways of Washington.
He navigated Obama through his first years as a senator and then as a presidential candidate. He was among those advisers who encouraged the Illinois senator to keep a low profile and focus on legislative matters -- an approach that had worked for former New York Senator Hillary Clinton.
“He probably more than any single person gave Senator Obama the guidance he needed to be first a new senator because he was chief of staff, and then ultimately evolving to a national candidate,” said Daschle, for whom Rouse worked for 19 years.
“He was without a doubt the most valuable person on the Obama staff and continues to be one of the most important in the Obama White House,” Daschle said.
While Rouse has shared the same title as Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod in the Obama White House -- senior adviser -- he hasn’t shared their more public profiles. He may still avoid the spotlight that comes with the chief of staff role.
“You are the one who fields the phone calls at 3 a.m. and gets to determine whether to awaken the president,” Duberstein said. “You’re the one who really gets to say ‘no” a lot, so the president doesn’t have to.”
Rouse was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and has degrees from Colby College in Maine, the London School of Economics and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Before going to work for Daschle in the Senate, he worked for then-U.S. representative and now Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, a close ally of Obama’s.
Rouse brings to the job some personal history with many of the Senate Democrats who will be crucial for Obama’s agenda. During the health-care debate, he spent more than 13 hours in a room with Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson to win his support.
For Obama, “there’s a complete loyalty and trust with somebody like Pete,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
That trust has enabled him to handle conflicts within the administration. Rouse played major role in finding a compromise role for Elizabeth Warren to set up the new consumer bureau amid differences among some Obama advisers, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A once-portly Rouse began working out with Obama’s personal trainer after the president offered to pay for his sessions.
Another interest: music. Rouse has traveled cross-country to see the Allman Brothers play and is friends with Phil Lesh, a founding member of Grateful Dead. Rouse organized the Grateful Dead reunion concert during Obama’s campaign.
It may make visiting the commander-in-chief a little easier. When Rouse was mentioned last year as someone to fill in as traveling chief of staff, Obama said, “Pete won’t even walk down the hall to come to my office, let alone get on a plane to travel with me.”
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