If President Obama selects Pete Rouse, his former Senate chief of staff, to be a caretaker executive in the White House, there will be little visible manifestation of Rouse's presence to the outside world. Inside the White House, however, while circadian rhythm will be less frenetic, the changes will be significant.
Where Rahm, leading the government (at the direction of the president), was as close to a prime minister as America could have, "Pete" has a different skill set. He is a good steward of staff, an able operations manager, a smart and thoughtful confidant. He knows the Senate (and, by extention, Congress); he knows Mitch McConnell almost as well as he knows his former boss, Tom Daschle. He is politically savvy in an understated way, and has a knack for seeing around corners. (It was Rouse who noted to Obama that a "yes" vote for John Roberts' confirmation as chief justice might not help his nascent presidential ambitions. It was Rouse who constructed the operation plan that ushered Obama from the Senate into his presidential campaign.)
Emanuel obsesses about the New York Times, and stays in contact with a dozen or more reporters each week. Rouse knows many reporters, but he is not a schmoozer, an information trader, or likely to return late night e-mails with provocative subject headings. He won't be as accessible to the White House press corps, or to parts of it, as Emanuel was. Rouse does not share Emanuel's conviction that the White House must govern principally through the Times.
Emanuel was always a voice in Obama's ear during the campaign, but he did not make it into the inner circle of advisers until he became chief of staff. Critical domestic policy and political decisions are almost always made with four people in the room: Emanuel, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod, and Valerie Jarrett. Rouse and Obama's two deputy chiefs of staff are often in the room, are influential and trusted, and when they speak, they speak for the President.
More likely than not, Rouse helps preside over a reorganization of the White House staff. As chief of staff for Senator Obama, he built independent relationships with many aides who are now serving as deputy assistants to the president. He gets along well with the First Lady and her staff.
He will help the President choose a new chief of staff and help the President figure out what that chief needs to do. He will help decide whether too many, or too few, people have access to the president. Among the things Obama needs to figure out:
- What his national security team looks like over the next two years
- How to manage the transition from governing mode to campaign mode; how the re-election campaign will interface with the White House
- Whether any senior staff need to be, shall we say, helped to reach a decision to leave the White House, and whether any ought to be promoted
- Whether the policy, messaging, speechwriting, and operations staff are functioning effectively and are meeting the president's needs
These are structural questions. The Gang of Four, including Rouse, and also, increasingly, Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer and Vice President Biden, will make the decisions about what the President will do and what the President will say.