Denis McDonough's proximity to President Obama has made many of his colleagues a tad jealous. Photo: CC BY: The White House
The first thing you learn about Denis McDonough, the man President Obama will probably select as his next chief of staff, is that he is an addict. His addiction isn't dangerous, but it is one he will have to do without, what with his new cabinet status and Secret Service detail. McDonough likes to sweat. He bikes to work, even in the most treacherous conditions. It's when he does his best thinking. (Random tip: Work on your toughest work or personal priorities right when you get up, before you do anything else. Your brain is primed for it.)
The second thing to know about McDonough is that his top qualification is that the president trusts him more than just about any other adviser. McDonough has foreign policy experience, but it really is better described as experience with Obama's foreign policy, which he has shaped as much as Tom Donilon, the current national security adviser, Susan Rice, or Ben Rhodes, who has been Obama's national security wordsmith. McDonough's proximity to Obama has made many of his colleagues terribly envious. It has caused friction, at times, between members of the national security inter-agency process, some of whom believe that McDonough has Obama's ear and thus holds all the implied power of the presidency. The truth is less conspiratorial; McDonough is less a consiglieri than the capo di tutti capi. Why wouldn't a president want an alter-ego who can get done what the president needs to get done? McDonough has been the main action guy, the facilitator, the man who makes things happen for the president since well before Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination. But it is true: Obama has concentrated the policy-making process considerably, and McDonough is the lead convener.
The third thing to know about McDonough is that he has many solid relationships with many senior members of the White House press corps, some of whom are probably nervous that he will not tend to their background needs as much he might. I've found him to be personally approachable and helpful at times; I believe he has come to share the Obama administration's theories about the press corps, but he is not as dismissive as some of his colleagues are. I have not spoken with McDonough in awhile, so I don't know if he has become more or less press friendly. I suspect that the source-greasing columns that will come out about him will provide a clue.
So what, the Beltway asks, does his (probable) selection of McDonough mean about Obama? It simply means, to me, that he wants a smart executor in the job of chief of staff, someone whose judgment he trusts and someone he can count on to get the job done. McDonough is quite intelligent and probably knows more about domestic policy than most of the reporters who write that he has no domestic policy experience, but Obama is not looking for a chief of staff who knows about domestic policy. His second term will be one where the legislative and executive accomplishments of the first term will need to be implemented, taken through Congress, through the rule-making process, through the media, through official Washington. McDonough is well-suited to manage that task.
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