David Rothkopf

The invisible man takes over the second most powerful job in Washington

Pete Rouse is one of the great untold stories of President Barack Obama’s White House. In fact, his is a great story precisely because, until now, it has been untold. Rouse has toiled tirelessly for the president, serving an absolutely vital role and to his credit he has not attracted one one hundredth of the ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Pete Rouse is one of the great untold stories of President Barack Obama’s White House. In fact, his is a great story precisely because, until now, it has been untold. Rouse has toiled tirelessly for the president, serving an absolutely vital role and to his credit he has not attracted one one hundredth of the attention in which his colleagues have basked… often thus revealing their short-comings to the world.

Rouse, the new interim White House chief of staff, is in fact, The Master Staffer, perhaps the best example of a breed upon which Washington depends, the great aides that both elevate and protect their bosses. Rouse did it for Tom Daschle and then he did it for Obama in the Senate and then again during the campaign. Other Senate chiefs of staff I know and for whom I have enormous respect consider him to be the standard by which others are judged and one told me that in his view it was only a matter of time before Rouse stepped into this role in the White House. Many who have known him for years also expect that he will excel in his new — and yet familiar — role to such a degree that ultimately President Obama will inevitably drop the "interim" from his title.

In fact, Rouse is so diligent, professional, accessible, and likeable that less than a day into his new role it is already a cliché to characterize him as the anti-Rahm. But while he is certainly unlike his volatile, ADD-challenged predecessor in many respects and, I would go further, an immediate improvement on many fronts, that does not mean that he will or can change what is broken within the president’s inner circle, the White House or the administration writ large.

There are two reasons for that. The first is that the problem with Obama’s inner circle is not that it has been so closed or so small or so inbred (although it has been all those things). It is that it has really not been very good at what it does. Oh yes, much has been accomplished by this president, as I have written before, much more than he has received adequate credit for. But, his inner circle has cosseted him, amplified his aloofness with the distance they have placed between themselves and even those who should be their close colleagues, and worst of all, they have believed their own press. They came into office hailed as political geniuses, which they were not. They had almost lost the primaries when they pulled out a victory based not on the candidate’s appeal or the resonance of his message, but rather came as a consequence of a tactical twist, a caucus strategy that was smart, but in many ways very ugly. They were in precarious shape in the general election until two external events saved them — the stock market crash and the missteps of their opponent.

In addition, they bought into the myth they had spun up about the president himself, concluding that he himself was the "change you can believe in", that he was so different that he did not actually have to follow through on his promises not to conduct business as usual in Washington, that all you needed to do to address an issue was to roll him out and that in fact, all they needed to be successful was him, a teleprompter and their own great gifts.

The appointment of the pragmatic, master of backroom bully tactics Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff was in fact, one of the earliest signs that it was going to be all politics as usual from the get go. He is a smart guy and might very well be a good mayor of Chicago much as he was a pretty good congressman, but he was a lousy chief of staff. He was not only far too hypocritical a choice given the president’s preachings on the practices he would follow but he was also far too tactical and when he did turn strategic, as in reportedly pushing for health care as a top priority, he blundered. Furthermore, there was far too much attention to him, his peccadilloes and his methods for him to appropriately serve the no-drama president. As former White House chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, said on the Daily Rundown this morning, the chief of staff job is not a job about being a chief; it is a job about staffing the president… a task best undertaken invisibly. That’s why Rouse’s invisibility to date despite his centrality is such an encouraging sign.

The second problem with the inner circle, of course, is that at its epicenter is Obama. Brilliant, talented, capable, hard-working, and earnest — he is also aloof, 10 degrees too cool for his own good, and inexperienced. He could still be the transformational figure the American people hoped for when they cast their ballots for him, but he is a long way from it at the moment. Why? Partly due to strong circumstantial headwinds. Partly due to the inevitable learning curve. But partly because for all the talk of "teams of rivals" the circle closest to him is a comfort zone of technocrats and yes men and women who hardly challenge him and who, as I mentioned before, have drunk too much of their own Kool Aid.

It’s for this reason that I think the president might be better off with a strong, independent minded James Baker-style chief of staff who will be his best advocate behind the scenes but also can challenge the president and bring out the best in him behind closed doors. If it turns out that Rouse can be that man, so be it, but many among even his legions of supporters wonder whether he is the guy to push, prod and challenge Obama to the next level.

All that we know now for sure is that Rahm Emanuel wasn’t that guy. But part of that at least is due to the fact that he was working for an inexperienced president. Rouse is taking over in the job for a man who has two years in the Oval Office and thus who is much better equipped to make his staff look good. Because in the end, that’s the secret to success in the White House: The rule is that good presidents make good staffers, and that even great staffers can’t help presidents who aren’t up to the job.

Pete Rouse is one of the great untold stories of President Barack Obama’s White House. In fact, his is a great story precisely because, until now, it has been untold. Rouse has toiled tirelessly for the president, serving an absolutely vital role and to his credit he has not attracted one one hundredth of the attention in which his colleagues have basked… often thus revealing their short-comings to the world.

Rouse, the new interim White House chief of staff, is in fact, The Master Staffer, perhaps the best example of a breed upon which Washington depends, the great aides that both elevate and protect their bosses. Rouse did it for Tom Daschle and then he did it for Obama in the Senate and then again during the campaign. Other Senate chiefs of staff I know and for whom I have enormous respect consider him to be the standard by which others are judged and one told me that in his view it was only a matter of time before Rouse stepped into this role in the White House. Many who have known him for years also expect that he will excel in his new — and yet familiar — role to such a degree that ultimately President Obama will inevitably drop the "interim" from his title.

In fact, Rouse is so diligent, professional, accessible, and likeable that less than a day into his new role it is already a cliché to characterize him as the anti-Rahm. But while he is certainly unlike his volatile, ADD-challenged predecessor in many respects and, I would go further, an immediate improvement on many fronts, that does not mean that he will or can change what is broken within the president’s inner circle, the White House or the administration writ large.

There are two reasons for that. The first is that the problem with Obama’s inner circle is not that it has been so closed or so small or so inbred (although it has been all those things). It is that it has really not been very good at what it does. Oh yes, much has been accomplished by this president, as I have written before, much more than he has received adequate credit for. But, his inner circle has cosseted him, amplified his aloofness with the distance they have placed between themselves and even those who should be their close colleagues, and worst of all, they have believed their own press. They came into office hailed as political geniuses, which they were not. They had almost lost the primaries when they pulled out a victory based not on the candidate’s appeal or the resonance of his message, but rather came as a consequence of a tactical twist, a caucus strategy that was smart, but in many ways very ugly. They were in precarious shape in the general election until two external events saved them — the stock market crash and the missteps of their opponent.

In addition, they bought into the myth they had spun up about the president himself, concluding that he himself was the "change you can believe in", that he was so different that he did not actually have to follow through on his promises not to conduct business as usual in Washington, that all you needed to do to address an issue was to roll him out and that in fact, all they needed to be successful was him, a teleprompter and their own great gifts.

The appointment of the pragmatic, master of backroom bully tactics Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff was in fact, one of the earliest signs that it was going to be all politics as usual from the get go. He is a smart guy and might very well be a good mayor of Chicago much as he was a pretty good congressman, but he was a lousy chief of staff. He was not only far too hypocritical a choice given the president’s preachings on the practices he would follow but he was also far too tactical and when he did turn strategic, as in reportedly pushing for health care as a top priority, he blundered. Furthermore, there was far too much attention to him, his peccadilloes and his methods for him to appropriately serve the no-drama president. As former White House chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, said on the Daily Rundown this morning, the chief of staff job is not a job about being a chief; it is a job about staffing the president… a task best undertaken invisibly. That’s why Rouse’s invisibility to date despite his centrality is such an encouraging sign.

The second problem with the inner circle, of course, is that at its epicenter is Obama. Brilliant, talented, capable, hard-working, and earnest — he is also aloof, 10 degrees too cool for his own good, and inexperienced. He could still be the transformational figure the American people hoped for when they cast their ballots for him, but he is a long way from it at the moment. Why? Partly due to strong circumstantial headwinds. Partly due to the inevitable learning curve. But partly because for all the talk of "teams of rivals" the circle closest to him is a comfort zone of technocrats and yes men and women who hardly challenge him and who, as I mentioned before, have drunk too much of their own Kool Aid.

It’s for this reason that I think the president might be better off with a strong, independent minded James Baker-style chief of staff who will be his best advocate behind the scenes but also can challenge the president and bring out the best in him behind closed doors. If it turns out that Rouse can be that man, so be it, but many among even his legions of supporters wonder whether he is the guy to push, prod and challenge Obama to the next level.

All that we know now for sure is that Rahm Emanuel wasn’t that guy. But part of that at least is due to the fact that he was working for an inexperienced president. Rouse is taking over in the job for a man who has two years in the Oval Office and thus who is much better equipped to make his staff look good. Because in the end, that’s the secret to success in the White House: The rule is that good presidents make good staffers, and that even great staffers can’t help presidents who aren’t up to the job.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf