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What Obama's Chief of Staff Pick Will Say About His Management Style What Obama's Chief of Staff Pick Will Say About His Management Style

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What Obama's Chief of Staff Pick Will Say About His Management Style

Denis McDonough, the front-runner for the job, is part of the president's close inner circle.


Denis McDonough is the White House deputy national security adviser. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

(This is an updated version of a story that initially ran on Jan. 9.)

Denis McDonough, who has the inside track to succeed Jacob Lew as White House chief of staff, has years of experience on Capitol Hill and is part of an inner circle of trusted aides who have worked with President Obama since his 2008 campaign. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, would bring several attributes that could be helpful in Obama's second-term, including his seasoning as a former congressional aide. The Minnesota native, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., could help Obama navigate a series of upcoming fiscal showdowns with House Republicans and assist him with selling an ambitious agenda of immigration reform and gun control on Capitol Hill.


Picking McDonough would also reinforce criticism -- brought up at a news conference on Monday -- that Obama's governing style is too insular. McDonough has been a close adviser to Obama since 2007, when he began advising the then-presidential hopeful on foreign policy, logging many hours on Obama's plane. He was a top adviser during the transition before moving to the National Security Council, where his initial role after Obama's 2009 inauguration was shaping the NSC's communications strategy. Later in 2009, McDonough became chief of staff to the NSC. When Thomas Donilon became national security adviser in 2010, McDonough became Donilon's No. 2. 

The next chief of staff will be Obama's fourth. Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, now the high-energy mayor of Chicago and a former House member -- devoted a huge amount of time to pushing Obama’s domestic agenda through Congress, including the 2009 economic-stimulus package and the president’s signature health care law. Of the three men who have served in the job under Obama, the even-tempered Lew best fit Obama's "no drama" management style. Either McDonough or Ron Klain -- another person who has been mentioned as a candidate for White House chief of staff -- would be in sync with that ethos. Both are known as loyal, efficient, and highly skilled at making things run smoothly. But Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, is not as personally close to Obama, and that is one reason many people believe that McDonough has the edge.

McDonough’s foreign policy expertise could be a plus for the job. Many presidents give a greater emphasis to global affairs in their second terms, although at least for now Obama has been signaling an intention to focus on domestic issues during 2013.


The president has, for the most part, shrugged off the criticism of his tendency to rely heavily on a small circle of close advisers. After a 2010 "shellacking" in the midterm elections in which Republicans took over the House, Obama brought some new faces into his administration, including former Commerce Secretary William Daley, who became chief of staff in early 2011. But Daley was never an ideal fit within the Obama White House, and he left the job after a year. Critics also say that Obama needs to do more to reach out to important constituencies, including Congress and the business community. David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and an expert on the NSC, says that more outreach to Congress would be helpful for Obama but said that either McDonough or Klain could tackle that effort.

McDonough’s strong rapport with Obama would be an asset in the job, Rothkopf says. “Denis has the advantage of being close to the president,” he says. “In this White House, having the trust of the president is absolutely sine qua non if you want to actually be a player. And this president is very parsimonious with his trust.”

Rothkopf describes Klain as a “formidable professional” who gets along well with people and “gets things done.” But Klain’s main ties to Obama are through Biden. Klain, who also served as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, played a big role in advising Gore in the 2000 election recount and was later portrayed by Kevin Spacey in a movie about the saga. After working for Biden for two years, he left the administration.

If Klain were to be chosen, it would indicate the rising influence of Biden within the administration. Donilon is a former Biden aide. Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee for Defense secretary, and John Kerry, the nominee for secretary of State, both served with the president in the Senate but their ties to Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran, go back even further.

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