Obama's Right Hand
Behind the scenes, White House Chief of Staff Pete Rouse is invaluable to the president
By David McKay Wilson '76
Published January 6, 2011
President Barack Obama walks off stage with outgoing White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, left, and new Chief of Staff Pete Rouse, right, in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 1, 2010.
It hasn’t always been that way, says G. Calvin Mackenzie, the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government, noting several high-profile congressmen who have served in that role: Leon Panetta with Clinton, Howard Baker with Reagan, Donald Rumsfeld with Ford. Said Mackenzie, "Rouse is doing what he has done his entire career—working behind the scenes."
Rouse, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is single and lives with his Maine Coon cats in Washington. He grew up in New Haven, Conn., the son of Yale University academics. His father, Irving, was an archeology professor, and his mother, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, taught at the Institute of Oriental Languages. Rouse’s maternal grandparents were confined to an internment camp in Arizona by the U.S. government during World War II.
At Colby Rouse’s role as an Echo sportswriter was a natural for a serious baseball player—Colby’s third baseman who was also known for his prowess playing stickball in the quad behind Miller Library, according to Robert Rudnick '69, Rouse’s roommate and longtime friend. Rouse was among two independents (non-fraternity men) named by the Echo in 1967 among the top 10 players in the interfraternity league, where he was known for his “blazing fastball and explosive bat." Rudnick said he last saw Rouse in January 2010, when Rouse spoke at Colby’s Sloop Hero Society event at the Union Club of Boston.
"His speech ran the gamut, and he didn’t tout himself," said Rudnick, a partner at the international law firm Shearman & Sterling and emeritus member of Colby’s Board of Trustees. "He told us about how he was learning the ropes [in the White House], the struggles they faced, and how they approached them. He was quite engaging. Generally folks in politics are much more guarded." That event was closed to the press.
After majoring in history at Colby, Rouse’s analytic skills were further developed in graduate programs at the London School of Economics and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
He met Daschle while both were congressional aides to Sen. James Abourezk in 1973. But then Rouse found a home in Alaska, where his maternal grandparents settled after emigrating from Japan, as Lt. Gov. Terry Miller’s chief of staff. Miller, whom Rouse met while studying at Harvard, was his only Republican boss. “He [Miller] was a very intelligent guy and a progressive Republican,” Rouse told the Anchorage Daily News in a rare interview in 2009. “And Alaska at the time, there were different philosophies up there. I shared his basic world view, I didn’t agree with everything, but on balance I felt he had the right vision for Alaska and the right philosophical approach.”
Rouse returned to Washington in 1985 to head up Daschle’s staff, starting a 19-year run with the Democratic senator, including the seven years that Daschle served as Senate majority leader. When Daschle lost in 2004, Rouse was ready to retire from government work. But reports say Obama pleaded with Rouse to head his Senate office, tapping the experience of the trusted Senate hand.
Now Rouse will head Obama’s governing team as the president addresses the sluggish economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a resurgent Republican party. Stuart Rothenberg ’70, a political commentator and editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter on U.S. politics, says Rouse is faced with quite a challenge.
““Peter will be helping the president navigate these more complicated waters,” Rothenberg said. “At the end of the day, it depends on the president’s ability to talk to multiple groups with different views and get each to nod their heads. And Peter will be very much a part of that discussion.”