Miguel Rodriguez is President Obama’s new director of legislative affairs. That makes him the president’s Congress whisperer and arm-twister, tasked with convincing Republican lawmakers of the virtues of Obama’s agenda.
Yet six weeks into the job, many of the Republicans Rodriguez needs to lobby hardly know anything about him. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s aides say they haven’t met him yet. House Speaker John A. Boehner’s aides say they have no basis to judge him by because they’ve talked with him just once. And the word from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office? They don’t know him.
As one Senate GOP leadership aide wrote in an e-mail, “NOBODY knows who the hell he is.”
Inside a Capitol where deals are greased by relationships, Rodriguez seems to have very few. But senior White House officials say that is one of the reasons Obama picked him — viewing Rodriguez as an unblemished broker who doesn’t carry baggage from the president’s tumultuous first term.
Obama’s advisers believe the days of backroom deals are over; months of failed fiscal negotiations with Boehner in 2011 taught them that. Rodriguez, a 41-year-old Takoma Park native, is approaching the job more as a translator than a salesman, looking discreetly for areas where both parties might agree and finessing troublesome issues that present obstacles, Obama’s advisers said.
Rob Nabors, a White House deputy chief of staff and Rodriguez’s predecessor as chief liaison to Congress, said Rodriguez exudes “a dedication to his boss and getting the job done that really is sort of refreshing.”
“There is no aggrandizement of him or his views on anything that he does,” Nabors added. “I couldn’t tell you what his position on anything was beyond ‘This is what the president wants me to do, I’m going to go figure out how to get it done.’ ”
Obama’s advisers see a window of less than 18 months to cement the president’s legacy before midterm election season and, after that, the race to succeed him. It falls to Rodriguez — a soft-spoken and shy son of Hispanic immigrants born and raised in Montgomery County — to facilitate bipartisan accords on everything from fiscal policy to immigration to guns.
Top Republicans were puzzled by Rodriguez’s appointment at a time when the president has begun a schmooze-a-thon with Capitol Hill. Some didn’t notice at all.
“The White House legislative affairs operation, I think, is pretty weak,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), an influential Republican who has broken ranks with his party to back the administration on issues including the “fiscal cliff” and the Violence Against Women Act. “I could not tell you right now who the White House director of legislative affairs is.”
Some Democrats, however, say that glad-handing is overrated, especially in an environment where most Republicans remain steadfastly opposed to the president’s agenda.
“I appreciate that this town works in knowing everybody and having a beer, but I don’t actually think that’s the most important thing for this job,” said Neera Tanden, chief executive of the Center for American Progress, who has worked with Rodriguez. “Where the rubber hits the road is how you look at an intractable problem and whether you can come up with a solution.”
Former Rodriguez colleague Laurie Rubiner, now chief of staff to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), said that many senior aides “forget that they’re not the 101st senator or the other Cabinet member.
“Miguel, that’s not what he’s about,” she added. “Sometimes just having somebody there who you know is not trying to promote themselves but just get to ‘yes’ could be very helpful.”
Almost a decade ago, Rodriguez quit his job in a corporate law firm and, leaping at the chance to enter public service, answered an ad for an unpaid fellowship in the office of then-Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.). A few months later, the senator started paying Rodriguez, and when he left to run for governor in 2005, Rodriguez moved into Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s fold. He served first as her chief counsel and later added the legislative director title.
Rodriguez handled some of Clinton’s more sensitive matters, including the quandary of how to resign. On Jan. 21, 2009, once the Senate approved her nomination to be secretary of state, Clinton was eager to attend Obama’s first meeting with his national security team. So she hastily arranged to take her oath. A federal judge was summoned. A Bible was procured.
But first, Clinton had to give up her Senate seat.
“Apparently it’s not that simple,” recalled Philippe Reines, Clinton’s longtime spokesman. “Miguel had to figure it out. . . . He sat in a desk right outside her inner office working it. He was writing letters on the fly, and they had to be hand-delivered.”