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Rouse May Find The Job Is More Than Interim Rouse May Find The Job Is More Than Interim

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WHITE HOUSE

Rouse May Find The Job Is More Than Interim

It is in Pete Rouse's nature to embrace the "interim" part of his new title. But if he thinks this is just a short-term gig as White House chief of staff, it won't be the first time President Obama has persuaded him to accept a job he didn't seek by promising it wouldn't be permanent.

 

The last time, Obama asked for a one-hour-a-day commitment. It turned into an intense six-year, seven-days-a-week job with few vacations and round-the-clock pressure.

In a 2009 interview with National Journal, Rouse recalled the way he first got lured into the Obama orbit.

Obama had just been elected senator from Illinois in the same election in which Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle was defeated, costing Rouse his job as Daschle's chief of staff. When Obama asked to meet him, Rouse was planning his retirement and focusing most of his time trying to find jobs for other Daschle staffers.

 

"He talked with me a few times about what advice I would give him about what he should be doing to get committee assignments," he said. "So we had a little relationship. Then Daschle loses and both Rahm and Dick Durbin take credit for suggesting to Obama that he hire me. I worked for Durbin in the early 80s and I knew Rahm from the (Clinton) White House."

Obama at the time had hired only two staffers -- Robert Gibbs and an office manager. He wanted Rouse's advice on what he should look for in a chief of staff. "He asked would I would be interested? I told him not really."

A few weeks later, the senator-elect asked him again to consider it. "I said, no," recalled Rouse, who said he stressed his duties closing Daschle's office and finding jobs for staffers. "I just can't give you enough time to do this. He said, can you give me an hour a day? I said well yeah... He said if you give me an hour a day... it's worth it."

Rouse said "the clincher" was that Obama told him it was "categorically not true" that he was thinking about running for president in 2008. That left Rouse free to jump to a Daschle campaign if his former boss decided to run. "I thought to myself, this guy is impressive, he's important to the future of the party, he's not running for president. I could do this for a year or a year and a half and that's what I like to do anyway -- put things together."

 

That, said Rouse, "is how it all started."

On Friday, Rouse took a pretty big next step, one that will make him something he has always avoided -- a public figure who won't be able to spend all his time in the shadows. In that regard, he could not be more different from Rahm Emanuel, the man he is replacing.

"Pete has never seen a microphone or a TV camera that he likes," said the president, drawing laughter from an audience packed with almost the entire Cabinet and dozens of White House staffers.

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White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, whose friendship with Rouse predates their days with Obama, warned reporters that there will be no interviews with the new chief of staff. "Pete is a behind-the-scenes guy," he said.

The president drew more laughter when he disclosed one of the favorite phrases used in his administration. "There is a saying around the White House: 'Let's let Pete fix it,'" he said. "And he does. Pete's known as a skillful problem solver. And the good news for him is that we have plenty of problems to solve."

Gibbs later said that Rouse is definitely on the list to become the permanent chief of staff, to have the "interim" stripped from his title. And there wasn't much doubt in the East Room that it would be a popular decision inside the White House.

There have been many hand-offs of power from an outgoing chief of staff to his replacement. But none could match Friday's event for glitz, star power or setting. Most announcements have been low-key affairs in the Oval Office or the press briefing room. In 1996, President Clinton did use the East Room to announce that Erskine Bowles would replace Leon Panetta. But that announcement lasted less than three minutes and led into a press conference featuring decidedly hostile questions about fund-raising and paying no heed to the announcement itself.

The contrast between those past hand-offs and Friday's televised announcement was dramatic. Scanning the audience, it appeared that only three members of the Cabinet -- the secretaries of Labor, Education and HHS -- seemed to be missing. The ambassador to the United Nations was here from New York. So was the head of the Export-Import Bank. And the U.S. Trade Representative. And top economic advisers. And political aides.

"We all wanted to be here," said Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, casting it as a chance to say farewell to one boss and show their fondness for the new boss. But Pfeiffer said it was more than that. There is also a sense, he said, that the administration is moving into a new phase.

The president cited this shift, stating that Rouse takes this important role "as we enter the next phase of our administration." But for members of Congress wondering if the new chief of staff will be less involved in law-making, Obama stressed Rouse's long ties to Capitol Hill.

"Pete," he said, "was affectionately known as the 101st senator. From the moment I became a U.S. senator, he's been one of my closest and most essential advisers."

He also mentioned that he has trusted Rouse to tackle "a series of management and legislative challenges with his customary clarity and common purpose." Gibbs later said that one of the first of those fresh challenges will be overseeing an organizational review of the White House.

That, of course, is how things started in the Senate office. No one will be shocked if this turns out the same way and Rouse finds himself still running the show come Election Day 2012.

- Kirk Victor contributed to this report.

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