JONATHAN COHN SEPTEMBER 30, 2010
Rahm Emanuel is out as Chief of Staff and Pete Rouse is in, at least for the time being. Should Rahm’s many critics, particularly progressives, celebrate the changeover?
Other journalists, including at least two at this magazine, are better qualified to answer that question than I am. But my hunch is that, for better or for worse, Rouse will change the internal culture of the White House more than he changes either the substance or message.
Purely in terms of style—i.e, management style rather than fashion—Emanuel and Rouse could not be more different. Emanuel cultivates relationships with journalists and revels in his image as a political enforcer. Rouse guards his privacy and avoids media coverage, to the point where he's virtually anonymous outside of Washington. Emanuel is by all accounts kinetic, confrontational, and explosive. His proclivity for loud expletives, particularly the one that begins with “f,” is the stuff of legend. Rouse is calm, congenial, and circumspect—perennially grumpy, but in a way most people seem to find endearing. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him yell,” says one former colleague. Emanuel has tons of enemies. Rouse, as best as I can tell, has none.
Emanuel is part of the Obama inner circle but, alone among its members, he came to it after the presidential election. By most accounts, Obama picked Emanuel precisely because he wanted somebody whose intellectual, managerial, and tactical sensibility was different from his own. Rouse’s relationship with the president dates back to Obama’s arrival in Washington, six years ago, when the new Illinois senator needed a chief of staff—and saw in Daschle’s former adviser a sharp, wise, and unflappable aide that operated the same way Obama did. As one of Rouse’s former colleague from the Daschle days puts it, “Before there was no drama Obama, there was no drama Daschle, and Pete is the thread that connects the two.”
In short, it sounds like the White House is about to become a little more friendly and a little less interesting, for however long Rouse stays in the position. Dead fish will be out. (Years ago, Emanuel sent one to an adversary.) Cats will be in. (Rouse loves them and has several.) And that may or may not make it a more effective operation, depending on whom you ask.
But what about message and policy? Will new management equal new substance? That seems less likely, for a couple of reasons.
It's true Emanuel frequently nudged conversations to the right. But I tend to think it was less out of substantive preference than tactical instinct, the kind you'd expect a longtime Washington operative to have. On health care, for example, he urged the president to back away from comprehensive reform because he believed it wouldn’t pass—a sense he developed, in part, because of his close ties to the Blue Dog congressmen he’d helped elect while running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the Bush years. He turned out to be wrong—and, to his credit, he worked ridiculously hard (as he always does) to pass the comprehensive bill once Obama made clear he was committed to it.
Rouse doesn’t have the same close ties to the Democrats’ moderate wing, as far as I know, and he doesn't have Emanuel's instinctive enthusiasm for soothing the business community. But Rouse is also the “ultimate pragmatist,” as one former colleague puts it. While working for Daschle, his nickname was the "101st senator," which conveys the extent to which he is a Beltway creature. As such, it wouldn’t surprise me if Rouse, like Emanuel, turns out to be exceptional at navigating his way through Washington—and not so exceptional when it comes to navigating his way around it.
That strikes me as both good and bad, although it depends on who else is part of the conversation—and the political imperatives facing the White House after the midterm elections. For the last two years, the focus was on passing legislation. For the next two years, it will likely shift towards framing political choices and running for re-election—although, again, we still don't know (er, I still don't know) how long Rouse will even be in the job.
Whatever the length of Rouse's tenure, one thing is for sure: President Obama will be the one making the big decisions—about the shape of his agenda, how to pursue it, and how to communicate it. In this White House, at least, blame and credit doesn't ultimately belong with the chief of staff. It belongs with his boss. And that's not changing.