POLITICS: PennAve

Obama's invisible man on Capitol Hill

By |
Politics,White House,Congress,Barack Obama,Senate,House of Representatives,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Lobbying

Miguel Rodriguez, President Obama's top liaison to Congress, isn't a regular presence on Capitol Hill despite his title.

Predecessors in his role were such fixtures in the marble halls that they were often treated as another member, but with a unique role — building relationships and political capital with lawmakers to advance the president's agenda.

Just nine months into the job, in the midst of a federal government shutdown and the most bitter budget stand-off with Republicans in nearly two decades, the 41-year-old D.C.-area native is expending precious little shoe leather on the Hill, opting to remain mostly at the White House, plotting strategy and directing his deputies from afar.

Even prominent Democrats say they don't know him.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., says he “may have met him” but can't recall.

When asked what he thinks about Rodriguez, Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., turned to an aide to ask who he is.

After learning, both lawmakers were quick to say a high profile doesn't necessarily mean success in the role.

House Republicans are far less charitable.

“We get emails from him from time to time,” one House GOP leadership aide remarked, adding that he still doesn't know what Rodriguez looks like.

Another chalks up the nearly nonexistent face time to a White House legislative affairs shop that either is “clueless” about how to talk to Republicans or doesn't care.

House Republicans point to an instance during a previous showdown with the White House when a member of the Obama legislative affairs team suggested sending Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former outspoken centrist House Republican who conservatives revile, to reach out to GOP members.

It wasn't always this way. In a town greased by relationships, past White House legislative affairs directors were the president's eyes and ears and were both respected and feared on Capitol Hill.

“Going back to the Reagan administration, as I recall, there was this sense of the need for visibility on the Hill,” said a former member of Bush's legislative affairs team.

That's old-school thinking, Democrats say, especially with so many Republicans deeply opposed to the president's agenda.

“Miguel plays a different role here. There's a lot of legislative sequencing that takes place behind the scenes,” one House Democratic leadership aide said.

Understated and low-key, Rodriguez trusts his deputies, John Samuels and Shawn Maher, to do the legwork.

“He doesn't seek out recognition like a lot of people on the Hill do. He always thought it was more important for the principal to get the attention he or she needs," said Neera Tanden, chief executive of the Center for American Progress, who worked with Rodriguez for Hillary Clinton when she was a New York senator.

It's a quality that has earned him the trust of both the president and his peers.

“Miguel is a talented professional that is dealing with one of the biggest political battles in recent memory with grace, class, and creativity,” said Rob Nabors, White House deputy chief of staff, who held Rodriguez’s position before his promotion earlier this year.

Rodriguez earned his bachelor's and law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but nearly a decade ago decided that corporate law didn't suit him and took a job as a fellow in the office of then-Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J. When Corzine left to run for governor, then-Sen. Clinton nabbed him for her office.

He served first as chief counsel, then moved up to legislative director. When Clinton left the Senate for the State Department, Rodriguez moved over with her, serving as the deputy assistant secretary charged with overseeing Senate relations.

Danny O'Brien, staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who served as Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff for years when he was a senator, remembers Rodriguez's tenacity in helping save Mari Carmen Aponte's nomination for ambassador to El Salvador.

“Miguel was at the tip of the spear working the administration's message in support of her,” he said.

Despite his partisan pedigree, Rodriguez, the son of legal immigrants from Chile and Colombia who met in Washington, isn't known for his ideological edge. His wife, Traci, is a Republican lawyer who worked in former President George W. Bush's Justice Department. The pair have two young children.

Republican criticism of the White House hill liaisons isn't focused on Rodriguez. Instead, GOP lawmakers and aides alike say the lack of daily interactions with the entire team plays into the perception of Obama as arrogant and aloof, and above building the type of close relationships that can slice through Washington gridlock.

Chuck Brain, who served as legislative director for President Bill Clinton, sees it differently.

“It's the toughest job in Washington. You've got to bridge the Constitutional divide, and right now they're just shooting the messenger because they don't like the message,” he said.

View article comments Leave a comment