Obama Picks Loyalist McDonough as Chief of Staff

Choice of insider suggests Obama wants a trusted inner circle.

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Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough speaks at an interfaith forum at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Va., Sunday, March 6, 2011.
Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough speaks at an interfaith forum at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Va., Sunday, March 6, 2011.

By naming Denis McDonough as his new White House chief of staff, President Obama placed a Washington veteran and a supreme loyalist at his side as he starts his second term, and decided not to add an infusion of new blood to his inner circle.

Obama's choice of McDonough, which had been expected for weeks, indicates that the president could shift markedly in his second term to foreign policy, which is McDonough's specialty as the current deputy White House national security adviser. It's also likely that the choice of McDonough will give Vice President Joe Biden more prominence in negotiating with Congress on key issues as he did in helping to arrange a recent temporary budget agreement. Capitol Hill is a prime area of Biden's expertise as a former senator from Delaware, while McDonough has far fewer contacts and deep relationships with members of the House and Senate.

Presidents often pivot to foreign affairs during their second terms because as commander in chief, a president has more latitude on international issues where he often doesn't need congressional approval. McDonough will help with this pivot.

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In announcing McDonough's promotion Friday, Obama said, "Nobody outworks Denis McDonough" and referred to his new top aide as a very close adviser and friend. "As a veteran of Capitol Hill, Denis understands the importance of reaching across the aisle to deliver results for the American people--whether it's on jobs and the economy, health care or education, reducing the deficit or addressing climate change," Obama said.

In covering the White House since 1986--and dealing with 16 chiefs of staff over those years--I've learned that the choice of this very powerful official often reveals a lot about a president's intentions and what he thinks his administration needs most.

Ronald Reagan is a good example of this dynamic. He started off with a talented and pragmatic manager, James Baker, as chief of staff. This worked well because Baker was a skilled deal maker, had good relationships with congressional leaders, and was an articulate public spokesman. In Reagan's second term, Baker swapped jobs with Treasury secretary Donald Regan. But Regan turned out to be too arrogant and imperious, and he was eventually moved out in favor of former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, a veteran Washington insider who was popular among Washington's elite. This is exactly what Reagan needed at that time since he was struggling to overcome the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal and needed all the goodwill he could muster on Capitol Hill. Baker resigned amicably and the chief of staff's job went to Ken Duberstein, another insider and a strong public spokesman.

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Fast forward to President Obama. He started with former Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago as his chief of staff. Emanuel had been a key political adviser to President Bill Clinton; he knew the ropes in Washington, and played the hard-liner's role while Obama stayed above the fray. Emanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago, a race which he won. Obama aide Pete Rouse succeeded him on an interim basis, giving way to Bill Daley, who was well connected in the business community. This is what Obama thought he needed at the time. But Daley seemed to have trouble navigating through all the political minefields of Washington and he gave way to veteran budget officer Jack Lew, who was mainly an inside player and was not much of a public presence.

Now comes McDonough, who is expected to keep a low profile but remain a close confidante of the president.

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  • 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.