Obama Narrows Search for Chief of Staff

Choice could signal what policies Obama will emphasize in his second term.

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President Barack Obama gestures as he talks about the fiscal cliff negotiations during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Washington.
President Barack Obama gestures as he talks about the fiscal cliff negotiations at the White House in December.

President Obama is about to choose a new White House chief of staff, one of the key personnel decisions of his administration even though few Americans understand what the chief of staff's job entails.

Obama apparently has narrowed his choice to two government veterans: Denis McDonough, the deputy White House national security adviser, and Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and to Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s. Klain is now an executive at AOL.

If Obama selects McDonough, a national security expert who is close to Obama personally, it could signal that the president plans to emphasize national security and foreign policy. If he chooses Klain, known for his managerial skills, the emphasis will probably be on domestic issues and making sure the White House functions smoothly.

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The chief of staff is considered the most powerful official in the White House and perhaps in the entire government, except for the president and vice president. "The chief" is responsible not only for running the West Wing but is also a key adviser to the president, generally the first staff member who sees him in the morning and the last to see him at night.

President Barack Obama gestures as he talks about the fiscal cliff negotiations during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Washington.
President Barack Obama gestures as he talks about the fiscal cliff negotiations at the White House in December.

The current staff chief, Jack Lew, was named by Obama Thursday to become the next Treasury secretary.

Since taking office in 2009, Obama has had a total of four chiefs of staff. The best known was the first one, Rahm Emanuel, a tough-talking former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton and an ex-member of the House who left the administration and is now mayor of Chicago.

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Since Emanuel's departure, those who have been chief of staff, including Lew, have been low key and almost invisible to the public, but that has not diminished their influence within government.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.