With White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's departure, President Obama is turning to the journeyman sage who helped acquaint him with the nuances of energy policy as a new senator in Washington. Now he might steer a splintered debate on climate.
Pete Rouse is part strategist, part Buddha, say those who know him. As incoming chief of staff, his well-worn relationships in Congress and relaxed attitude could be valuable for a president facing a larger force of Republican lawmakers following midterm elections, according to former colleagues.
This is the second time Rouse will lead Obama's team. In 2004, when he signed on as Obama's Senate chief of staff, Rouse helped coordinate energy roundtables to get the rookie senator up to speed, one former Senate energy adviser said. Obama was briefed by experts on energy security and on fuels and their impacts on the atmosphere.
"In terms of people who understand energy policy in the West Wing, he is very knowledgeable in the area and has a good sense of Congress," the adviser said.
Rouse served as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's (D-S.D.) chief of staff for 19 years, and oversaw the swashbuckling attempts in the early and mid-2000s to pass massive energy bills that promoted ethanol, early carbon sequestration and studies on climate change.
Now Rouse might be thrust back toward those issues. The changeover comes as Obama is pledging to pursue legislation next year that will chip away at climate change by reducing emissions through the development of clean energy. Some believe Rouse might be better-suited for it than Emanuel.
"They both have, you know, good working knowledge of energy policy and environmental policy," the adviser said. "But I would say Pete has focused [and] worked on these issues longer than Rahm Emanuel has."
Coming at climate 'more gingerly'
During the energy debates of the last decade, Rouse advised his staff to push environmental priorities. But not too hard. He doesn't lose focus on the main point: Develop legislation that can pass.
"He's very green," said Eric Washburn, who helped write the energy bill of 2002 as Daschle's legislative director. "He's someone who I think has deeply held views about these things, but he's also someone who can temper them" to get the "best [outcome] the political system can deliver at that moment."
Those characteristics could help the administration recover from a stinging failure in the Senate to pass a climate bill that sought to cap national emissions. The aspirations reached too far, and soured needed support from conservative Democrats and every Republican.
"I think Pete's going to be very good at analyzing the political landscape and helping the Obama administration," said Washburn, who now works at BlueWater Strategies LLC. "That's going to help [Obama] calibrate this in a way that will help them figure out a way forward, probably more gingerly than this Congress, this congressional leadership, tried to do."
Rouse also served as chief of staff to Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democratic senator, when he was a member of the House, and to Alaska's Lt. Gov Terry Miller (R).
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama's trust in Rouse is "enormous."
"There's a complete loyalty and trust with somebody like Pete," Gibbs told reporters yesterday. "Pete's strategic sense has played a big part of the direction of virtually every big decision that's made inside of this White House."