McDonough Defies Skeptics as Top Obama Aide
As a Wall Street Journal columnist, I once wrote a mea culpa about a previous column. The publisher, a good friend and strong conservative, suggested it should be the first of a long series.
I’m going to risk it again: I was wrong a year ago about Denis McDonough, who had then just become White House chief of staff. This is the consummate political job, and he was versed in foreign policy, not politics; as a 43-year-old acolyte of Barack Obama, he seemed unlikely to develop a peer relationship with the president.
Yet, in a tough political environment, he has emerged as a high-energy, efficient and politically skillful manager who is changing some of the insularity for which the Obama White House is infamous.
The former congressional staffer was an immediate hit on Capitol Hill, where relations with the administration had soured. He has brought a new level of consultation and accessibility. An example: When another top White House staffer was going to miss a meeting with a Democratic senator, McDonough dashed up to fill in. The Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, beams at the mention of his name.
Despite the current atmosphere of partisan bitterness, McDonough has won praise from the other side. He helped bring about the president’s more regular meetings with Republicans and has served as the point person in periodic follow-up sessions with eight senators.
“Denis has been accessible to me and everyone in our working group,” says Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican. “It serves us well and it serves the president well. We obviously have our differences, but when you’re on a first-name basis and you’ve got each other’s phone numbers, you can do a lot.”
Similar praise comes from a much different group: the cabinet. For much of Obama’s first term, the White House rarely utilized this talented and experienced team on any issue beyond the specific secretary’s immediate jurisdiction.
McDonough traveled to each secretary’s office to discuss their issues and concerns, and he has regular cabinet coffee sessions at the White House.
“Denis has included the cabinet in more meaningful ways and has brought in outside voices to help lay out planning and implementation of policy for the next three years,” says Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
McDonough has widened the White House inner circle; the insularity of keeping deliberations and decisions limited to a tight group worked well in a campaign, but it doesn’t work well in governing. Witness the rollout of the health-care law.
He enlisted John Podesta, who, as a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, has an unsurpassed sense of policy and politics. He also brought back Phil Schiliro, another heavyweight, and elevated Katie Fallon to head of congressional relations, delighting Democrats. Podesta says the new arrangements work even more smoothly than expected.
McDonough draws criticism, too. Some senior White House senior staff complain he limits access to the president. He also took flak for failing to get the vice president and secretary of state sufficiently involved in the early decisions on Syria, for reacting slowly to the faux scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service, and for not adequately anticipating the flawed Obamacare rollout.
Still, insiders say, he learns quickly and adapts.
The gold standard for a modern chief of staff is Jim Baker, who served under Ronald Reagan. He understood and commanded the respect of his boss; possessed superb instincts and judgment; appreciated the nexus between politics and policy; and knew that governing is an inside-outside job -- working the levers of power inside while appealing to the public.
McDonough hasn’t yet risen to that level, but his old boss, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, sees similar strengths:
“He has an unusually close relationship with the president, a network of loyal associates, and an engaging personality and work ethic that has empowered him to have arguably the best relationship with members of Congress on both sides of anyone in the administration.”
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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