Obama\'s Right Hand

Obama's Right Hand

Behind the scenes, White House Chief of Staff Pete Rouse is invaluable to the president

By David McKay Wilson '76

White House Chief of Staff Pete Rouse ’68 addresses Colby’s Sloop Hero Society in Boston in January 2010. Rouse spoke of the challenges facing the Obama administration.

Members of the political press might be surprised to know that one of the White House officials least likely to grant an interview was once a reporter himself—for the Colby Echo. Through more than 40 years since he was an Echo sportswriter, White House Chief of Staff Pete Rouse ’68 has remained largely aloof from the news media. It’s a practice that has served him well as he has risen through Washington’s ranks and scaled the pinnacle of power in the Obama White House.

Rouse, who was named interim White House chief of staff Oct. 1, has continued to avoid the limelight as he works on the inside to promote President Barack Obama’s agenda. That makes Rouse, 64, the polar opposite of his predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, the high-profile former congressman who exited the West Wing to run for mayor of Chicago. Unlike the fiery and voluble Emanuel, Rouse has risen to the top in Washington by working the inside game—as Senator Tom Daschle’s chief of staff for 19 years and then as chief of staff for Obama when Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004.

“Pete Rouse is one of the great mystery men of Washington,” said Peter Hart ’64, the public opinion analyst who conducted polling this year for NBC and the Wall Street Journal. “He does his job exceptionally well, and he does it without fanfare. In Washington, there are workhorses and there are show horses. Pete Rouse is the ultimate workhorse. As 2011 dawned, the Associated Press reported that Obama was considering bringing former US Commerce Secretary Bill Daley to replace Rouse, letting him return to serving as senior advisor. ”

From behind the scenes, Rouse helped mastermind Obama’s unexpected rise from a freshman senator to the nation’s first African-American president. "I look for real smart people, people who place a premium on getting the job done, as opposed to getting credit," Obama told the Washington Post in 2008. “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.”

In introducing his new chief of staff, Obama pointed to Rouse’s abilities to find solutions to difficult problems. “There’s a saying around the White House: ‘Let’s let Pete fix it,’” the president said.

For all of the president’s public confidence, Rouse’s appointment sparked speculation from political bloggers. “Those who have been with Obama the longest are very excited,” wrote Marc Ambinder, former politics editor of The Atlantic magazine. “Rouse is brilliant, has a policy compass that resembles Obama’s in the Senate, and seems genuinely concerned for how staffers adjust to the crucible of the institution.”

One thing is certain: Rouse will have plenty to fix in coming months. Rouse, who served as an advisor to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and then became part of his White House inner circle in 2009, was elevated to chief of staff just a month before the November midterm elections. The election results were sobering for Obama, now forced to retrench and to work with the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

Sandy Maisel, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government and director of Colby’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, says Rouse is the right man in these trying times for Obama. While heading up the Senate offices of Daschle and Obama, he was known as “the 101st senator” for his ability to move legislation.

“Pete is Mr. Inside and not a public persona, which is what Obama needs right now,” Maisel said. “He can work with Congress and has the reputation for working well with the Republicans. That becomes more important, as Obama needs to tone down his partisanship to work with the Republican House and a more closely divided Senate.”

Rouse’s desire to ply his trade away from the spotlight harkens back to the Brownlow Commission’s 1938 report on federal government reorganization, which recommended White House staffers have “a passion for anonymity.”

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