New Chief of Staff Closes Tight-Knit CircleBy PETER NICHOLAS and CAROL E. LEE
Wall Street Journal
January 27, 2013
President Barack Obama announced Friday that he would install national-security official Denis McDonough as his new chief of staff, completing a shakeup of the West Wing staff that drew heavily on a close-knit circle of loyalists.
Mr. McDonough will become the president's fourth chief of staff, succeeding Jack Lew, who is Mr. Obama's choice to be the next Treasury secretary. The selection was the latest to show Mr. Obama's preference for aides with whom he has a strong personal bond.
Mr. McDonough, 43 years old, has been the president's deputy national security adviser, playing a role in the decisions to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other matters. He first worked with Mr. Obama after the 2004 elections, helping the newly elected senator set up an office on Capitol Hill. Later, he assisted Mr.
Obama's 2008 presidential bid. Aides recall Mr. McDonough, a churchgoing Catholic, clutching rosary beads in the Chicago campaign headquarters as he worked out the logistics of the then-senator's visit to the Middle East and Europe.
Aides say Messrs. McDonough and Obama have forged almost a fraternal bond. The president hinted at the close rapport as he announced the appointment in the East Room of the White House, when he talked about Mr. McDonough's days as a small-college football player.
"I always tease Denis that he made up for modest talents with extraordinary dedication and a high threshold for pain," Mr. Obama said. "This does remind me of perhaps the one topic on which Denis and I will never agree, and that is Vikings vs. Bears." Mr. McDonough is from Minnesota, Mr. Obama from Chicago.
Rep. Pete King (R., N.Y.) predicted that Mr. McDonough would prove to be a good choice. "I've always gotten along with him,'' said Mr. King. "He's been very straight, and very direct."
Others say the appointment reinforces a presidential style that has grown more insular, with Mr. Obama installing a corps of confidants and allies in the government's top echelon, with few outsiders or strangers tapped for jobs.
Mr. Lew, a close aide, is moving to Treasury. Former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel, his nominee for defense secretary, is a friend from Mr. Obama's Senate days. Longtime aides in the White House were promoted as part of job moves announced Friday.
"It worries me the degree to which the president has such a tiny inner circle that has been unchanged for so long," said Rosa Brooks, who worked at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2011 and now teaches law at Georgetown University.
"The potential for danger is isolation,'' said John Podesta, a White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration who is close to the Obama team. "They have to make sure he's not isolated and that he's getting a wide-range of opinion in front of him," he said of the team.
In his new post, Mr. McDonough will be assisted by Rob Nabors, who as legislative affairs director was deeply involved in negotiations with Republican lawmakers to avert the tax increases and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff. Mr. Nabors becomes a deputy chief of staff.
President Barack Obama will need to fill many key posts in his second term. Take a look at top officials, some of whom are expected to leave.
Denis McDonough, pictured in November 2012, played a key role in the administration's decision to end the Iraq war and wind down the war in Afghanistan.
Senior White House adviser David Plouffe, who has been Mr. Obama's political mastermind since the 2008 election, essentially will be succeeded by two people. Dan Pfeiffer, who has been White House communications director, is being promoted to Mr. Plouffe's post. He will be assisted by David Simas, who worked on Mr. Obama's 2012 campaign. Jennifer Palmieri will succeed Mr. Pfeiffer as communications director.
Mr. McDonough is married with three children. He has often bicycled to work at the White House from his home in the Washington suburbs, a practice that will prove difficult to maintain, now that he will have a Secret Service detail.
A native of Stillwater, Minn., Mr. McDonough was a standout football player at St. John's University, a Catholic school in Minnesota. "He was very smart on defense, he rarely made an error and he was a tough guy. He had to be one of the best we ever had," said his former coach, John Gagliardi.
Mr. McDonough tends to channel the president in meetings, advocating positions that fit squarely with Mr. Obama's world view. For example, Mr. McDonough was a strong internal advocate for reaching out to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring—a position reflecting Mr. Obama's interest in courting outside voices in autocratic countries beset by protests, people familiar with his position said.
On the domestic side, Mr. McDonough has served as a point person for talks with Catholic leaders.
In preparing for his new role, Mr. McDonough last week spoke to some of his predecessors, including Bill Daley. Mr. Daley and the first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had impressive political pedigrees of their own: Mr. Daley was a cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration, while Mr. Emanuel was a Democratic leader in Congress. In Washington argot, both were "principals."
Mr. McDonough, by contrast, is a career deputy. "Loyalty" is the word that comes up most often when people describe his value to various elected officials.
"He's extremely loyal,'' said one of his former bosses, former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D., Ind.) "The thing that would set him apart from an ordinary competent staffer is that he had a good sense of not only the substance of a problem but the politics of it."