President Barack Obama plans to name Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough as his next chief of staff, a Democratic source briefed on the plans tells POLITICO. McDonough would replace Jack Lew, whom Obama nominated to be his new Treasury secretary.
By selecting McDonough, Obama is opting for the familiar: a trusted aide who's been at his side since the 2008 campaign and is credited with keeping the administration's internal wheels turning smoothly on foreign policy issues.
But McDonough brings less experience than his predecessors with another typical part of the job: fielding sometimes angry salvos from members of Congress with home-district concerns about aspects of the administration's policy or budget decisions.
McDonough has been involved in just about every major national security decision made by Obama since he took office, from the surge in U.S. troops in Afghanistan to the launching of the commando raid that killed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
McDonough, who holds the title of deputy national security adviser, served since October 2009 as the chief of staff to the National Security Council, regularly overseeing the so-called deputies meetings where key decisions are hashed out or teed up for more senior officials. At the outset of the administration, he was in charge of "strategic communications" for the NSC.
"Unlike some of the other senior staffers, there was just no drama associated with Denis. He's always poised, collected and unflapped. He was also a team player. To my knowledge, he never went behind people's back," recalled former White House Counsel Greg Craig. "He's also courageous and has no qualms about calling people up and telling people his views."
McDonough joined Obama's presidential campaign in 2007 after serving as the chief foreign policy adviser to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in the Senate and during a stint Daschle spent at the Center for American Progress after losing his seat in 2004.
McDonough bonded with Obama as his traveling foreign policy aide during the 2008 campaign. He was part of a team of foreign policy advisers to Obama which included Greg Craig, Susan Rice and Anthony Lake.
Craig says Obama and McDonough immediately hit it off.
"He was a terrific fit with Obama even before Obama realized how great a fit he was. Temperamentally, intellectually he was on the same plane with Obama," Craig said. "He was flawless on the substance when he talked about it and very sharp also on the politics of it. I'm not surprised Obama would consider him for the [chief of staff] job."
"The president knows [McDonough] well and trusts him," said Matt Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman who worked with McDonough on war-on-terror issues. "He's demonstrated tremendous organizational ability. One of the key components of that job is that you have to make the trains run on time. That's what he's done."
McDonough will become Obama's fourth permanent chief of staff. Former Clinton White House aide and Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel served in the post until he quit in October 2010 to run for Chicago mayor. Obama adviser Pete Rouse picked up the chief of staff duties on an acting basis for a few months until former Clinton Commerce Secretary Bill Daley took over in January 2011. He served a year before he resigned and was replaced by Lew.
Veteran members of Congress felt comfortable picking up the phone to lodge such objections with Emanuel and Daley. Few lawmakers have the same rapport with McDonough. The pencil almost always tucked behind one of McDonough's ears seems to signal a staffer ready to dive into the pros and cons of a thorny issue rather than hobnob with politicians or woo CEOs.
Administration officials expect many of the Congressional relations duties to fall to Vice President Joe Biden and Lew, who's been nominated as Treasury Secretary.
McDonough did manage to ruffle feathers both in the press corps and in the administration during his tenure as the National Security Council's Director for Strategic Communications at the beginning of Obama's first term. Some reporters found him overbearing and heavy handed.
Some reporters accused McDonough of dissembling about just how strategic the administration was in providing information to reporters whose news outlets were though to have maximum impact. Others said the communications aide froze out journalists who wrote or even worked on stories the administration didn't like.
"He'll be pretty tough," said one reporter who crossed swords with McDonough. "It'll be a zero-tolerance place on the message discipline front and there will be the usual shouting matches with the media."
McDonough's efforts to put Obama and the White House at the center of reporting on national security policy also led to clashes inside the administration. In the fall of 2009, McDonough went head to head with veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke after the New Yorker published a profile that focused on his personal history.
"McDonough dressed down Holbrooke, pointing his finger for emphasis," James Mann reported in his book, The Obamians. "He told Holbrooke that the president was unhappy about the magazine article, which had drawn attention to Holbrooke, not the administration, and portrayed Afghanistan in a way that centered on Holbrooke's own story. The White House wanted to set the messages and images of the administration, and not have various individual actors send out a cacophony of ideas."
Craig said in an interview last week that he was "not surprised at all" that McDonough's tactics rubbed some officials and journalists. the wrong way.
"I think he was doing his job as best he could in those early months...He wasn't freelancing. He wasn't going rogue," said Craig. "When a new administration comes in it is very, very difficult to get everybody on the same page. ... That can result in some people pushing back."
While McDonough has been largely a behind-the-scenes player, colleagues say he's shown a particular passion for efforts to encourage religious reconciliation and maintain the Obama administration's support in the Muslim community.
When release of an anti-Muslim film trailer triggered rioting in parts of the Muslim world last September, Obama called the video "inflammatory." But McDonough went even further, blasting the trailer as "truly abhorrent" -- arguably the strongest denunciation offered by the Obama Administration.
Conservative critics of the administration's rhetoric on the issue said officials mustered too much outrage about the video and should have put greater emphasis on the barbaric nature of the attack that took place at about the same time on the attack which killed four Americans including the ambassador at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
There is little doubt that McDonough was a key adviser to Obama on his handling of the consulate attack -- a matter which drew sharp attacks from Republicans during last year's presidential campaign and derailed Obama's reported desire to name Rice as Secretary of State.
A photo the White House released of Obama being briefed on the night of the attack shows McDonough speaking to a somber looking Obama in the Oval Office with a wide-eyed Biden looking on.
Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are pressing for a more detailed timeline of what Obama and other White House officials knew about the attack and when. However, McDonough's appointment won't give lawmakers much leverage on that issue: the chief of staff position is not subject to Senate confirmation.
McDonough was also past of the inner circle during the most notable national security moment of Obama's first term: the raid which killed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. In the iconic photo of administration officials in the White House situation room watching a video feed of the raid, McDonough is seated between the surprised-looking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and one of the raid commanders, Air Force Brig. Gen. Brad Webb.
One of McDonough's few high-profile speaking assignments for the administration was a March 2011 speech aimed at assuaging Muslim Americans' concerns about hearings House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) was launching into Islamic Radicalization in the U.S.
"We must resolve that, in our determination to protect our nation, we will not stigmatize or demonize entire communities because of the actions of a few," McDonough said in remarks delivered at a mosque in northern Virginia. "In the United States of America, we don't practice guilt by association....Instead of condemning whole communities, we need to join with those communities to help them protect themselves."
Questioned by reporters after the speech, McDonough declined to confirm the evident link to King's hearings and insisted no rebuke of the congressman was intended. "We welcome congressional involvement in the issue. It's a very important issue," he said, before dashing out.
McDonough -- who's called himself "a proud Catholic"-- has also served as an unofficial White House liaison to the Catholic community.
While his official White House duties have pertained to foreign policy, he has sometimes popped into domestic policy debates where Catholic Church officials have expressed strong views.
Before the administration announced a rule last year requiring that all employee insurance plans include contraceptive coverage, McDonough weighed in with warnings that the measure would generate an angry reaction from Catholic groups, the New York Times reported. A firestorm indeed ensued and within a few weeks Obama modified the policy.
In a speech to Catholic Bishops last fall, McDonough called Obama "a brother in Christ" and argued that religious principles shape the way Obama faces issues. "As a close adviser, I've also seen how the President's faith informs both his thinking and how he confronts the challenges facing our nation," McDonough said.
McDonough, a native of Stillwater, Minn., is one of 11 children. In the speech to the bishops, he also noted that one of his brothers is a Catholic priest and another is a former priest. He received a bachelor's degree in history from St. John's University in and a master's in foreign service from Georgetown.
McDonough, who played football at St. John's, has remained loyal to Minnesota teams. He's an avid fan of both the Vikings and the Twins -- and also gets passionate about soccer, colleagues say.
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