Denis McDonough Nomination As Chief Of Staff Signals a Centralized White House Under Obama


President Obama has named Denis McDonough, a longtime foreign policy aide and current Deputy National Security Advisor, as White House Chief of Staff, a position responsible for leading the 1000-plus White House staff and serving as “gatekeeper” to the president. In many ways, this pick is both a confirmation of Obama’s management preference for a trusted inner circle of close advisers, leading one to conclude that McDonough’s experience with diplomacy and national security is less likely to mean a renewed second-term emphasis on foreign policy over domestic policy.

Instead, it’s a likely signal that we can expect foreign and national security policy to continue to be centralized in the White House — in short, a continuation of the status quo.

A graduate of St. John’s University in Minnesota and of a master’s program at Georgetown University, McDonough, 43, is a veteran of Capitol Hill, where he served as a policy aide to former Democratic Congressman and foreign policy statesman Lee Hamilton, and former Majority Leader Tom Daschle in the Senate. From there, he moved over to then-Senator Obama’s office, where he advised the junior senator from Illinois on foreign affairs. Since then, McDonough has been involved in “every since major national security decision” in the White House, as the president stated during the Friday afternoon ceremony that replaced outgoing Chief of Staff Jacob Lew, the treasury secretary-nominee, with McDonough.

With major political battles in the coming months, however, the bulk of Obama’s first year in the second-term is likely to remain focused on the major fiscal and domestic policy challenges ahead, contrary to the long-running experience of the man tapped to lead the White House through those battles. This includes the fiscal fight over the debt ceiling, as well as the promised push towards comprehensive immigration reform. Indeed, the limited role that foreign policy had in Obama’s second inaugural address is a definite preview of this likely trend.

So the McDonough pick, if not a prelude of a move towards foreign affairs in the tradition of Nixon or H.W. Bush, is instead a confirmation of the inner-circle style of the Obama White House. As the White House revamps itself for the second term, foreign policy, then, will undoubtedly continue to be a product of this tightly centralized national security decision-making process, a phenomenon neither new nor likely to change in the near term.

The centralized foreign policy style of the White House has also been evident in the power of National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, one of the president’s closest foreign policy advisers, who has been left as one of the few remaining senior staff holdovers from the first term. His influence with the president was reportedly the source of a number of high-profile political battles in the first term, including the relatively low-prominence of Obama’s first National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and the objection of then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

As Chief of Staff, McDonough’s trust and rapport with the president will prove to be his biggest asset in a White House where loyalty has shown to be a highly valued commodity, and in an administration that will likely continue to be a bastion of foreign policy. The coming months will be a vital test of that structure and of the decision to appoint a domestic policy rookie to an all-consuming job as one of the president's most senior advisers for the gambit of issues the country faces.