At the beginning of his first term, President Obama concentrated power in a handful of close aides, all of them working in the White House complex, all of them, save one, having the audacity to be longtime loyalists. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod worked hand-minus-a-part-of-a-finger-in glove on domestic policy. Valerie Jarrett, Obama's best friend, handled outreach, the president's personal affairs and style, and the business community. Foreign policy was determined largely by Obama's consultations with long-time advisers like Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes, rather than by an integrative process where outsiders like National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played roles as equals.
In some ways, Emanuel was ideal for Obama's first year: A force of nature, brimming with ideas, Washington know-how, and savvy. Maybe he made the wrong calls, but he got things done. He was feared and respected. As Obama eased into his office, he gradually expanded the circle of first-among-equals. His next two chiefs of staff were managers; Bill Daley and Jack Lew kept the trains running on time.
Now McDonough steps into a far different office than the ones his predecessors inherited. He ran a nice policy process at the National Security Council (since renamed the National Security Staff), but the centers of gravity in the administration are dispersed. Jarrett still runs her portfolio. Peter Rouse has served as chief operating officer or general manager at the White House for the past two-and-a-half years and will likely stay in that role for a bit. David Plouffe succeeded David Axelrod's role as communications and political strategist. Dan Pfeiffer, another Obama lifer, will assume much of Plouffe's portfolio. Lew now runs the economy (or will run the economy, assuming he is confirmed as the next secretary of the Treasury.) Tom Donilon, the National Security Adviser, has an iron grip on national security. There will be two heavyweights in cabinet posts — John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.
So what is there left for Denis McDonough to do, policy-wise? Not much. Having served as a legislative director in the Senate for a year, he does not bring the domestic policy experience to the job that Emanuel did. Obama trusts McDonough as much as anyone, and he'll be in the room for all the major decisions. But his actual influence may decline even though his title is now as grand a title as one can get.
That's a function of Obama's management style, one that McDonough helped to reify in his previous role. There is a lot to get done, and there is no Rahm-like enforcer in the White House. Perhaps the president's political capital, along with the Republican internal infections and the growing economy, are sufficient to generate enough headwinds for most domestic policy proposals, but that's a big if. Gun control, immigration, implementing health care reform, likely Supreme Court appointments later in the year and more: All this is on McDonough's plate. It will be interesting to see what approach he takes to these unfamiliar challenges.