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A low-profile successor for White House chief of staff

By Peter Nicholas and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington– Many of the unpleasant little tasks that a White House confronts — nudging an aide out the door, perhaps, or helping a senator find someone a job — tend to wind up on Pete Rouse’s desk.

Rouse, 64, a low-key troubleshooter and consummate backroom player whose work is seldom publicized, is being elevated to a post in which he may lose some of his cherished anonymity: White House chief of staff.

Rouse will succeed Rahm Emanuel, who is leaving to run for mayor of Chicago. It’s an interim appointment, although White House aides say Rouse could end up getting the post on a permanent basis.

Standing next to Obama and Emanuel in the East Room on Friday as the president announced the personnel moves, Rouse looked characteristically uncomfortable before the cameras.

“He is a person who would run away from a camera,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who once employed Rouse as chief of staff. “He has no interest in personal publicity whatsoever.”

When Obama entered the U.S. Senate in 2005, Rouse was his most important hire. Rouse had served as chief of staff to the former Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, and he had a raft of connections on Capitol Hill.

He was known in the Senate as a workaholic; the joke was that he started his day at 5 a.m. and left the office at 4:45 a.m. A bachelor, Rouse lives with his two big, gray cats.

“One of the smartest things he [Obama] did after being elected to the Senate was choosing Pete as chief of staff,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “That indicated to people on the Hill that he was serious.”

With help from other Obama advisors, Rouse wrote a strategic plan for the new Illinois senator that would capitalize on his celebrity and maximize his political reach. Later, when Obama got serious about running for president, Rouse set up a timeline for key decisions and created a system for evaluating Obama’s prospects, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in an interview.

After Obama took office, Rouse followed him to the White House. In the West Wing, he is part of a quartet of senior aides who made up Obama’s inner circle, along with Chicagoans David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and Emanuel, who is now gone. Axelrod plans to leave the White House next year to work on Obama’s 2012 reelection bid.

Rouse nourishes ties to old colleagues in the Senate, where some knew him as the “101st senator.” Every month or so he and Reid go out to dinner. Durbin said he would call Rouse to see about finding jobs for people in the Obama administration and to discuss bills moving through Congress, among other reasons.

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