Denis McDonough: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Obama’s New Chief of Staff

The young national security whiz has handled the gears of the Hill, but McDonough's business chops and willingness to think outside Obama's inner circle have yet to be proven. And one more thing, watch out for that temper!

  • Share
  • Read Later

U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough speaks to the press after meeting Honduran President Porfirio Lobo at the Government Palace in Tegucigalpa on Nov. 28, 2012.

President Obama is set to name his staffer Denis McDonough to replace Jack Lew as White House chief of staff. It’s a brutal, powerful job: the chief of staff’s brain is like a stopper at the end of a giant funnel into which Washington, America and the world pour urgent requests, petty demands, crucial information and dangerous threats. Organizing and prioritizing who and what gets to the President and protecting him from who and what shouldn’t, all with wisdom and clarity, requires broad experience in everything from domestic politics to law enforcement and intelligence. Not to mention the interpersonal skills required to manage all the enormous egos who want access to the Oval Office.

McDonough brings his own strengths and weaknesses to the job. He’s tireless, loyal, close to the President and clear-eyed, and he has the rare quality of a Washingtonian whose ego is in check. On the other hand, he’s young (43), has little experience outside government and has a famously volcanic temper. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly:

The good: McDonough has been a key player in Obama’s largely successful national security staff. A senior foreign diplomat who has worked closely with the White House recently told me he expects books to be written about how disciplined the decisionmaking in Obama’s national security apparatus has been over the past four years. Whereas the Bush and Clinton teams were riven with power centers and random conduits of influence, the Obama team has run smoothly even on contentious issues. McDonough has used his proximity and trust with the President to impose order on the process.

Also, McDonough knows Washington. His primary experience outside the White House was on Capitol Hill, where he was a staffer to former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. That gave him intricate knowledge of the eccentric rules of power on the Hill and particular expertise in national security, which was his area. It also made him a pragmatist: his catchphrase is “It is what it is,” which he and other White House staffers use as a kind of realist touchstone in debates. That realism is softened by McDonough’s underlying set of moral convictions that colleagues say derives from his faith as a practicing Catholic. Obama came to rely on that combination of qualities throughout the first term, as McDonough was present in the final, small-group debates on most crucial issues concerning Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism.

The bad: the downside of Obama’s reliance on a loyal, organized group of his closest advisers, critics say, is that they have all the power and everyone else is kept at arm’s length. “It’s like a locker room over there,” says one former senior official. First-term critics felt that they were cut out. Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon counselor, wrote a scathing assessment of Obama’s foreign policy, point 6 of which was “Get Rid of the Jerks” — McDonough being one of them. The article had an air of sour grapes and criticized the Administration for not solving the world’s problems in four years, but it is true that the danger of insularity becomes greater in a second term as the distance from real-world experience increases.

McDonough lacks formal legal training or a background in business. Neither are prerequisites for chief of staff, but they help. And as he is just 43, with a largely Washington-based résumé, even the intense training of proximity to the President is not a substitute for breadth and depth of experience.

The ugly: If you’re a reporter in Washington writing on foreign affairs and national security and you haven’t been yelled at by Denis McDonough, you haven’t tried very hard. He’s toned down the notorious paint-peeling tirades of his early days, but his temper remains in force and is present behind his demands on staff. Anger itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a chief of staff: John Sununu was a famously unloved but effective bulldog in the George H.W. Bush Administration, and anger can intimidate opponents and force them off positions, setting a level of expected performance and enforcing loyalty. But curse-laden outbursts can harden opposition from those who resist intimidation on principle and can drive conflict, especially among big egos.

Obama has had three chiefs of staff so far, and they could hardly have been more different: the fiery, opinionated Rahm Emanuel; the business-oriented outsider Bill Daley; and the quietly wonky Jack Lew. Denis McDonough’s era is about to begin.