President Barack Obama has signaled to his senior advisers that Denis McDonough, currently a deputy national security adviser, is his leading candidate to succeed Jack Lew as White House chief of staff, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Selecting McDonough would elevate a former congressional staffer whose loyalty to Obama is unquestioned, according to the people. The chief of staff serves as the president’s gatekeeper, making the position one of the most powerful in the White House.
The other main contender for the job has been Ron Klain, who had served as Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, the people said. While Obama has worked closely with Klain, who supervised campaign debate preparation, the president has had a long relationship with McDonough, who joined Obama’s Senate office in 2007, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters.
“Denis has been one of the people the president has most trusted and depended on,” Bill Burton, Obama’s former deputy press secretary, said. “He is extraordinarily talented, extremely intelligent and unbelievably loyal in a town where loyalty is not always rewarded.”
McDonough, 43, would be Obama’s fifth chief of staff. The president hasn’t announced his decision to his senior advisers, the people said. Yesterday, Obama named Lew as Timothy F. Geithner’s replacement as Treasury Secretary, leaving a vacancy should Lew be confirmed by the Senate. The chief of staff job isn’t subject to Senate confirmation.
The president’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, left in October of 2011, as he prepared to run for mayor of Chicago. He was followed by Pete Rouse, who served as interim chief of staff. Then, at the beginning of 2011, Obama brought in former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who held the position for a year.
McDonough served as a foreign policy adviser to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and joined the White House National Security Council in 2009.
He served as NSC chief of staff and as deputy to national security adviser Tom Donilon beginning in 2010. Earlier, he was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy institute, and a congressional aide including foreign policy adviser to then-Senator Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, and legislative director for then Senator-Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat now serving as Obama’s secretary of the Interior Department.
“Denis is the kind of guy you’d want around in a debate about national security, in a conversation about what was going to make the world better for his kids or in a knife fight,” Burton said.
With his trademark pencil tucked behind his ear, McDonough is popular with mid-level and lower-level staff and respected by the president’s principal advisers, who have long acknowledged that McDonough had more influence than most of his cohorts at the deputy level.
When Democrats were defeated in the mid-term elections in 2010, his sister sent White House staffers second-hand dress shirts, in an effort to cheer them up.
McDonough, a Minnesota native, was raised Catholic and is one of 11 children. He graduated summa cum laude from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota and has a master’s degree in foreign affairs from Georgetown University.
A resident of Takoma Park, Maryland, his preferred mode of transport to work was a bicycle, until his wife forbade him from biking DC streets after an accident. He often walks onto the White House grounds in his running shoes.
Klain served as chief of staff to both Biden and former Vice President Al Gore. In January of 2011, he left the White House and returned to Case Holdings, the holding company of AOL co-founder Steve Case and served as an outside adviser to Obama.
Neither McDonough nor Klain responded to e-mails seeking comment.