You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Workers' Paradise

Obama's team of grinds.

After 37 years on Capitol Hill, Pete Rouse, Barack Obama's Senate chief of staff cum White House senior adviser-in-waiting, is known for three things: his mastery of the job (as former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle's chief of staff, Rouse became known as "the 101st senator"); the loyalty he inspires among those who have worked with him (whose numbers are legion); and the cats. Two big, silky Maine Coons named Moose and Junior, Rouse's beloved felines are a source of affectionate humor among current and former colleagues. The gruff 62-year-old keeps photos of the kitties scattered around his office. He obsesses about their well-being (when Moose's predecessor, Earl, passed away in 2003, Rouse was bereft), is a sucker for cat-themed knickknacks, and has guided fellow staffers into adopting their own furry friends (Maine Coons, naturally). Some observers suggest, ever so gently, that Rouse's cat devotion is related to his lack of a personal life. A legendary workaholic in a town where the competition for that distinction is fierce, the (unmarried, childless) Rouse is said to have little time for outside-the-office distractions. There's his occasional Friday night out for an Ivy League hockey game and the one week of summer vacation in August. But, beyond that, Rouse is all about the job. "Pete Rouse is always working," e-mails one fan/colleague. "The first one in the office and the last one to leave." It is a long-term lifestyle that only a cat could love.

Rouse's reputation as a two-cat-no-life workaholic should provide a comforting welcome to Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, Obama's choice to head Homeland Security. Napolitano is also single, childless, and famously committed to her career. Hearing of Napolitano's appointment, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell declared his fellow chief executive perfect for the post because she has "no family" and "no life" and thus can "devote literally nineteen, twenty hours a day" to the job. Rendell's remarks were derided in some quarters as sexist. But in his defense, we are talking about a woman who, when asked by Phoenix Woman how she unwinds after a long day, replied, "When I come home at night, I read all the papers, memos, legislative bills, and letters that accumulated during that day. ... Then I read a good book. I always read two books at a time--one fiction and one nonfiction." In fact, Napolitano's intense job focus and unmarried status have, in the past, spurred whisper campaigns about her sexuality, prompting the governor to quip that she's not a lesbian, "just a straight, single workaholic."

Happily, Napolitano should also fit right in with White House chief of staff-in-waiting and renowned workaholic Rahm Emanuel, who, as a congressman, was known for calling up staffers and reporters alike at all hours. Loath to miss a minute of the action during this fall's negotiations over the $700 billion financial bailout, Emanuel sought a waiver from his rabbi to allow him to work through Rosh Hashanah.

This is not to suggest that Obama old-timers are complacent slackers: Family confidante and soon-to-be White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett has an all-hours BlackBerry-cell phone doublefisting habit that, whatever else it achieves, makes her a thrill behind the wheel. (Trust me on this.) One of Chicago's savviest political players, Jarrett's m.o. has long been to outwork those around her--a particular challenge in her early years of single-parenthood. (Daughter Laura is now all grown up and ensconced at Harvard Law.) Back in the summer, Jarrett recalled to me how, at one point during her tenure as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's deputy chief of staff, she was lectured by Daley's wife, Maggie, for working too hard. "She told me, 'You have got to take one day a week off to be with your daughter.' I said, 'I can't do that.' And she said, 'The mayor doesn't work on Sunday, why should you?'" Jarrett's compromise was to start taking Laura along to weekend work functions.

The list of known and suspected Obama work-obsessives stretches on and on. There's Peter Orszag, the incoming head of the Office of Management and Budget, who colleagues say is responsible for lots of 5 a.m.-ish e-mails; incoming deputy chiefs of staff Jim Messina and Mona Sutphen; economics guru Jason Furman; Cabinet Secretary-designate Chris Lu; and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton. Of course, some suggest it all started with campaign manager David Plouffe, who isn't transitioning to the administration, but whose keep-your-head-down-and-work-your-ass-off style established the model for Obamaland early on.

Whatever the origins, a defining characteristic of the emerging Obama White House is its proud embrace of the work-all-hours, sleep-is-for-wimps, personal-lives-would-be-nice-if-only-there-were-time ethos. Ironically, Michelle Obama has talked about how she wants to help Americans improve their work-life balance during her tenure as First Lady. Before moving on to the general public, though, she might want to start with the people who work for her husband. Because, whatever other change Obama ultimately brings to Washington, he has already put the workaholics back in charge.

This move stands in vivid contrast to the much-ballyhooed culture of laid-back family-friendliness touted by the incoming Bush administration in 2001. (Remember how adviser Karen Hughes was going to establish a White House in which working moms like her could thrive?) In part, the reversion is a by-product of the times: President Bush came to power with no clear crises looming, whereas Americans today are frantic for President Obama to doggedly attack problems on both the domestic and foreign fronts, work-life balance be damned.

But the difference is also--and arguably more--a function of presidential temperament. George W. Bush, an extravagantly laid-back guy himself, evinced a disdain for the sweaty, striving meritocrats so characteristic of the Clinton White House and made it clear that he valued a less-driven atmosphere. (Perhaps it all goes back to those snotty, "intellectually superior" jerks who chafed W. 's haunches at Yale.) Bush envisioned himself atop a lower-key administration run with crisp corporate efficiency and no-nonsense decisiveness. (Work smarter, not harder!) The genial Andy Card, Bush's first chief of staff, was in particular known for his easygoing manner and indulgence of moms who needed to slip out for afternoon school functions.

To be sure, Washington being Washington, Bushworld was never quite the work-life Eden advertised. For every Andy Card, there was a Type A hard-charger like Ken Mehlman, Karl Rove, or Josh Bolten (who, it must be noted, eventually replaced Card). Heck, even Card reportedly rose at 4:20 each morning, stayed at the office not infrequently until 10 p.m., and spent most weekends working. Karen Hughes, meanwhile, fled Washington after just a year and a half because of the job's strain on her family. No matter: Right up to the end, the perception of the Bush White House--and the self-conception that the president obviously preferred--was of a place where time could always be made for a little brush-clearing.

Obama's initial approach appears markedly different. Even in a city known for its strivers, his appointees seem to be a disproportionately intense bunch. On one level, this is precisely what you want in unsettling times. But it may also prove trouble down the road. Burnout is a risk in any White House, and already some Obama devotees with children have expressed concern about how their schedules will mesh with family life. (Not that this has stopped most of them from signing on, mind you.) What happens a year or so into Obama's tenure, when the brutal work-til-you-drop culture starts pushing scores of idealistic staffers into therapy, divorce court, or even the private sector? In the relentless crucible of the White House, how can Obama avoid driving his uber-committed workforce into the ground?

I have four words for the new president: Inaugural kittens for everyone.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in December 2008.