McDonough Brings Order to West Wing to Press Obama AgendaJulianna Goldman
It’s 7:45 a.m. in White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s office and about a dozen senior aides are focusing on two flat-screen monitors with PowerPoint slides.
Legislative director Miguel Rodriguez is running today’s dashboard -- McDonough’s term for a slide presentation on various topics -- and going over the names of President Barack Obama’s cabinet nominees awaiting confirmation. A green arrow pointing up is good. A yellow horizontal arrow spells trouble. Red arrows pointing down have so far been avoided.
On this day, Obama’s choice for budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, has a green arrow next to her name, yet there’s a potential problem. Her confirmation hearings will coincide with the release of Obama’s budget, giving Republicans an opening to pose some probing questions. The slide alerts the economic, communications and legislative teams to coordinate and avoid any surprises that could jeopardize her chances.
“What Denis is doing is making sure that two trains don’t run into each other,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama. “He’s allowing everyone to see the whole field.”
McDonough, 43, has brought the discipline of the White House’s Situation Room, where he helped monitor the hunt for Osama bin Laden, to the chief of staff’s office. His dashboard meetings illustrate why Obama chose his loyal and technocratic deputy national security adviser as the West Wing’s chief operating officer for the president’s second term.
With limited time to pursue an agenda that includes everything from a possible deal to rein in the nation’s debt to a new immigration policy, McDonough is making sure that objectives are defined and the organization is structured to produce results. The goal is to cement Obama’s place in history.
Current and former administration officials, as well as onetime Republican and Democratic chiefs of staff, say a more cohesive team has been created that’s reaching outside the White House bubble. The structure, they say, compares with the frenetic days early in Obama’s first term when Rahm Emanuel had the job, or when William Daley struggled to forge a bond with the president, or Jacob Lew left political planning to others during the 2012 election year.
McDonough “earns praise for how he manages a staff and treats people,” said Andrew Card, President George W. Bush’s former chief of staff. “He gets good reviews from people who he’s met with who do not share the president’s policy positions.”
Yet discipline can stifle original thinking. At the National Security Council, McDonough was a fierce promoter of the president’s agenda whose sharp elbows sometimes alienated State Department and Defense officials.
In 2009, after the late Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was featured in a New Yorker article that was more about him than the president’s policies, McDonough “dressed down Holbrooke, pointing his finger for emphasis,” author James Mann recounted in his book “The Obamians.”
“He was kind of the enforcer for what the president wanted and tried to impose a discipline on all the various parts of the foreign policy apparatus,” Mann said in an interview. “One effect was that people in places like the State Department and the Pentagon thought that, and still think that, the White House is too controlling of foreign policy.”
McDonough’s ultimate success will probably hinge on his political instincts and sensibilities. That’s what has separated chiefs of staff deemed successful -- such as James Baker under President Ronald Reagan and Leon Panetta under President Bill Clinton -- from others like Donald Regan, who also served under Reagan and didn’t have the same political antennae.
McDonough, a devout Catholic whose voice has the distinct timbre of his Minnesota roots, is one of Obama’s longest-serving advisers. That familiarity allows them to tease one another. Obama has joked with aides that McDonough is such a no-frills guy that he had to make him stop biking to work from his Maryland home when he became chief of staff in January; the position brings with it a security detail.
As a former congressional aide, McDonough puts a premium on outreach. He’s a member of Obama’s ever-shrinking and insular inner circle, yet he’s been pushing the president to engage with Republicans.
Obama, who in a January news conference voiced doubt that more mingling with the opposition would yield tangible results, has done an about-face, holding two dinners with Senate Republicans and meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The president has also continued a practice of meeting with corporate chief executive officers that began before McDonough assumed his new role. At the White House yesterday he discussed ways to bolster economic growth with the heads of banks, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Lloyd Blankfein and JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon.
In March the economy added the fewest workers in nine months as payrolls grew by 88,000. March retails sales unexpectedly fell in March by the most in nine months, decreasing 0.4 percent, Commerce Department figures today showed. Still, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index has more than doubled from its 12-year low in March 2009.
Josh Bolten, who like Card served as Bush’s chief of staff and recently met with McDonough, said the meetings with lawmakers “are important and they help set the tone, without which it is very hard to reach any kind of agreement.”
McDonough, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has hosted gatherings to seek outside advice on a range of policies, including when he recently sought the counsel of former Clinton administration officials about health care.
He’s one of Obama’s most ferocious protectors and has no agenda other than the president’s, according to current and former administration officials.
“Denis’s greatest advantage is he has the trust of the president,” said Panetta, who was also Defense secretary under Obama.
At the NSC, McDonough got a reputation as the guardian of the Obama White House Golden Rule: Give the president the best advice without limiting his options. On conference calls, in face-to-face communication and in e-mails with everyone from Pentagon officials to lawmakers, he made clear that no one should get ahead of the president’s decisions.
Focusing on process can take chiefs of staff only so far, though. Like presidents, they’re judged by unforeseen events, becoming pivotal figures who keep things together if they can combine their managerial skills and political instincts. The wrong chief of staff can tarnish a president’s legacy, as Regan did when he had to resign over the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987.
“A lot of the mistakes and failures and missteps of the first two years of Reagan’s second term can be laid directly at Regan’s door,” said Jerry Mayer, director of the Master of Public Policy Program at George Mason University in Virginia.
McDonough hasn’t had to oversee the White House during a crisis, yet he may soon be tested. He’ll need to prove that his more-inclusive style creates an avenue for people to advance new ideas to the president. And he has to show that Obama’s new outreach to lawmakers isn’t just a box-checking exercise.
“His biggest challenge is to develop credentials to deal with the Hill,” Panetta said. “The president needs someone sitting in the room who can cut a deal.”
Obama’s legislative priorities are headed toward a boiling point in the coming months. His health-care law will rise or fall on how smoothly it is carried out. Already, the administration has delayed implementation of a provision in the 2010 overhaul that will force small-business employees to wait a year before they can choose their own medical coverage.
The effects of $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts will be trickling through the economy this year. House Republicans warn that they’re prepared for another fight over lifting the nation’s debt ceiling this summer, and they haven’t shown willingness to compromise on the budget.
“They still have many obstacles in front of them, but he’s clearly passed the early tests,” said John Podesta, another Clinton chief of staff, citing McDonough’s efforts at reaching out to Congress.
A shoe-leather manager, McDonough walks the halls of the White House and holds meetings with junior aides who never met with his predecessors. McDonough, who served on the staffs of former senators Tom Daschle and Ken Salazar, goes on Wednesdays from the West Wing to the Eisenhower Executive Office building next door, where most of the White House aides work, for the cafeteria’s taco day.
He holds weekly sessions with Cabinet secretaries, who complained during the first term that they felt disconnected from White House decision-making, according to a person familiar with the meetings.
As chief of staff, McDonough’s in position to navigate several centers of power, including those of senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, national security adviser Tom Donilon and Vice President Joe Biden, each of whom has direct access to the president.
He had the benefit of watching how his three predecessors - - Lew, Daley and Emanuel -- handled the job.
Emanuel, with a colorful, expletive-laden style, served during a frenzied period that saw a rush of major legislation, including passage of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, an economic-stimulus package and the health-care overhaul.
Daley was brought in to install a more orderly process and help repair ties with the business community, though he never got close to Obama. Lew was a lead negotiator with Congress on the budget and oversaw the White House staff when the political team was running the 2012 re-election effort.
McDonough is one of the few Obama advisers comfortable enough to challenge the president. Obama can be firm in his decision-making, and McDonough has learned over the years how to confront him, according to a former administration official.
“Being the president’s guy is an enormous asset,” said Daschle. “You have to have the sense that when you’re talking to the chief of staff, you’re really talking to the president.”
In his day-to-day management duties, he’s also tried to minimize territorial and professional competition inside the White House, making clear that he wants to be seen as an independent arbiter. He helped organize meetings to plan Obama’s visit to Israel in March, yet opted out of going on the trip to tend to daily business.
He bookends his days with Obama in the Oval Office -- they huddle one-on-one throughout the day in meetings, including the presidential daily briefing on intelligence matters.
He starts his days sending e-mails at 4:30 a.m. While Obama leaves the West Wing to have dinner with his family in the early evening, McDonough, a father of three, often stays past 10 p.m.
Staff meetings are shorter, but there are more of them. Unlike Obama’s other chiefs of staff, McDonough never sits at the head of the table, and when there’s an open place, he invites junior aides off the sidelines to take a seat.
He doesn’t allow BlackBerrys in his office. Everyone entering must park their communication devices in the cabinet outside the door, the same rule as in the Situation Room, where security was paramount.
McDonough ends staff meetings with a check that everyone knows their “due-outs” -- what’s due out of the meeting. He corrects staff who spell it “do-out.”
He also expects his staff to embrace some of his workaholic habits. Saturday and Sunday meetings are now the norm. That has been an adjustment for senior staff since Lew, his predecessor who’s now Treasury secretary, was an observant Jew and didn’t hold sessions on the Sabbath.
“That’s the bargain,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “You get to know more and be included in more meetings, but you have to work more.”