The Anti-Rahm

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

What Rouse brings to the top job.

On the day Barack Obama took the oath of office, Pete Rouse, already his most unassuming adviser, turned down a prime seat on the inaugural platform to watch the historic event on TV. On the evening last March when the landmark health-care bill passed, an occasion Obama considered more satisfying than election night, the president asked Rouse to join a small group for champagne on the Truman Balcony. Rouse genially told Obama and other insiders he was going home, where he lives alone with his cats. The joke inside the White House is that Pete--as everyone calls him--so dislikes travel that he won't even travel down the hall to see the president in the Oval Office. So Obama ambles down to Rouse's West Wing perch, where he puts his feet on the desk to receive some wise counsel from one of the few staff people he fully trusts.

The rap on Rouse is that he's too nice to be chief of staff. But nice might be needed for a spell. His appointment is comfort food for a staff that feels besieged. Even when the long knives are out, they never seem to find their way into Rouse. Not yet, anyway.

Rouse will be an en-tirely different chief of staff from Rahm Emanuel, who took the job with the understanding that he would be something akin to a prime minister for Obama. Emanuel, now rolling the dice as a candidate for mayor of Chicago, was a "principal," Washington-speak for a former elected official or cabinet member; Rouse, a former chief of staff for Obama (when he was a U.S. senator) and Tom Daschle (when he was majority leader), spent 30 years as a Senate aide. Emanuel was most focused on tactical politics; Rouse is less political and more attuned to personnel, morale, and strategic thinking. Emanuel's best contacts were with his old colleagues in the House; Rouse's are with his friends in the upper chamber, where he was sometimes called the "101st senator."

The two men get along well. The voicemail message on Rouse's cell phone was recorded by one of Emanuel's children. But their styles are almost polar opposites. While Emanuel's profanity and ability to Get It Done brought him bemused devotion, he was also routinely compared to Ari Gold, the hyperkinetic Hollywood agent on Entourage based on Rahm's brother Ari. …