In selecting Denis McDonough to be his next and fifth chief of staff, President Barack Obama is tapping a longtime confidant and unflappable ally to be his gatekeeper to the personalities and challenges that will confront him in his second term.
Obama announced Friday that McDonough, now one of the president's closest national security advisers, will replace outgoing White House chief of staff Jack Lew, whom Obama has nominated for the treasury secretary.
McDonough, 43, becomes the latest link in a chain of staffers elevated to key roles in the Obama White House following years of service within the president's closely guarded inner circle. The risk-averse strategy keeps Obama in his comfort zone and ensures that those setting the tone for the administration are in tight harmony with his way of thinking.
"The president trusts him — perhaps more than anyone else in the White House. And I think he knows the president's mind perhaps better than anyone else in the White House," said John Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and co-chaired Obama's transition team. Podesta worked closely with McDonough both in former Sen. Tom Daschle's office and at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House.
A native of Stillwater, Minn., McDonough obtained a master's degree from Georgetown University in 1996 and soon became a foreign policy staffer in the House, then later in the Senate under Daschle, the top Senate Democrat at the time. Like so many of the president's senior aides, his work for Obama started during the 2008 campaign, where he served as a foreign policy aide and was a senior adviser on the transition team. In 2009, he became the chief of staff for Obama's national security staff.
Announcing his choice on Friday in the White House, Obama said McDonough was not only one of his closest advisers but also one of his closest friends, recounting the "countless crises" during the first term that had engrossed McDonough at all hours of the day.
"I've actually begun to think that Denis likes pulling all-nighters," Obama said to knowing laughter from fellow staffers in the East Room. "The truth is nobody outworks Denis McDonough."
Current and former White House staffers describe McDonough as an exceptionally hard worker with deep loyalty to the president. Highly regarded by fellow White House staffers, McDonough has a deep well of experience navigating tough national security issues; he is among the top officials photographed with Obama in the situation room in 2011 as Navy SEALs carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But McDonough is also known for putting a human touch on his demanding job, occasionally sending handwritten thank-you notes to co-workers for their help on projects or foreign trips.
"You often find in Washington people very skillful on substance. You have very good people on the politics of people. It's a fairly rare staffer who combines the two," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who employed McDonough as a foreign policy adviser in the 1990s and described his demeanor as calm and reasonable. "Firm, commanding in a sense. He had command of the facts without being offensive in any way."
That's important, because Obama has made no secret of his preference for a low-key work environment, free of the drama and clash of personalities that can so often distract from the pursuit of a policy agenda.
Obama's first chief of staff, current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was known more for volatility than cool-headedness. And some administration officials still bristle at the president's attempt to bring in an outsider for the chief of staff job — Bill Daly, who replaced Emanuel but only lasted about a year before leaving Washington. McDonough is expected to be more in the mold of Lew, the even-keeled budget guru who, like McDonough, had already amassed a lengthy Washington resume before becoming Obama's chief of staff.
But what McDonough boasts in foreign policy expertise he lacks when it comes to domestic policy, which encompasses the bulk of the major issues the president will confront as his second term gets under way. Looming over the start of McDonough's term as chief of staff are a set of fiscal showdowns over debt and government spending, a heated campaign for gun control legislation and a major push for comprehensive immigration reform.
Although McDonough's portfolio has been national security, he is involved in daily senior staff meetings at the White House that often focus on domestic issues. Last year, when the White House was embroiled in an internal debate over a mandate requiring religious organizations to offer contraception coverage, McDonough, a Catholic and one of 11 children, was among a handful of aides who raised concerns.
Obama is expected to surround McDonough with aides who have broader experience on domestic issues and congressional negotiations — most notably Rob Nabors, Obama's legislative director and chief negotiator with Capitol Hill, who the president tapped Friday to become his new deputy chief of staff for policy.
"He does not have the kind of background that Jack Lew had in budget matters, so he'll have to bring on board some very knowledgeable people," said Hamilton. "He probably already has."
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.
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