President Obama meets with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Chief… (Pete Souza/THE WHITE HOUSE )
The man in line to become President Obama’s next chief of staff is one of his most loyal and trusted confidants — a rare Washington player, associates said, whose sole objective is protecting and advancing the interests of his boss.
Denis McDonough, 43, is widely known for his pivotal role as deputy national security adviser for the past two years, helping guide the U.S. military drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan and the handling of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
But McDonough, who is expected to be named in the next several days, sources close to him say, has had a far-broader portfolio that includes developing political strategy and playing enforcer for those who stray from White House talking points.
More than any of Obama’s other chiefs of staff — Rahm Emanuel, William Daley and Jack Lew, who has been nominated to head the U.S. Treasury — McDonough is an Obama true believer who keeps an eye on burnishing his legacy, said those who have worked with him.
“Denis is one of the president’s closest advisers and friends,” said Michéle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy who left the Pentagon’s third-ranking job last year. “There are few people who know the president’s mind as well as Denis. He’s been with him through so many phases and situations. He’s very good at having a sense of how the president will view something or react to something or where he’s come down on a given issue.”
Administration officials cautioned that Obama has not made a final decision. But at a time when the president is facing intense Republican opposition, McDonough’s rise to the cusp of one of the most powerful positions in Washington suggests that Obama is intent on surrounding himself with loyalists for a more confrontational second term.
Emanuel, a former congressman, and Lew, a budget expert, were brought in to navigate Capitol Hill, and Daley was intended to be an ambassador to the business community. McDonough, by contrast, is expected to focus on the White House, ensuring that it is functioning in top form and speaking with one voice.
“He just lives there 24-7, he’s loyal, he keeps his mouth shut and he’s very disciplined,” said one administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal process.
A star high school football player in his native Minnesota, McDonough attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and earned a master’s degree in foreign service at Georgetown University in 1996. Married with three children, he lives in Takoma Park and has been known to commute to the White House by bicycle.
McDonough worked on foreign policy for former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and followed him to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, in 2004. He joined Obama’s Senate staff in 2006 and was part of a tightly knit group of young, mostly male aides who formed the core of Obama’s 2008 campaign staff.
Celeste Wallander, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, recalls McDonough being on the phone with her and other campaign advisers continually in August 2008, after war broke out in Georgia, formulating the response for a young senator who had little foreign policy experience.
“He wanted to hear ideas — what to do and say, what are the pros and cons,” said Wallander, now an associate professor at American University. “The team came together and was tested by fire.”
After Obama was elected, he made McDonough his chief foreign policy communications strategist, responsible for speech-writing and messaging. He was promoted two years ago to the No. 2 job at the National Security Council, where his close access to Obama has rankled other high-ranking officials.
Tall and slim, with deep-set eyes and short gray hair, McDonough was pictured sitting two seats to Obama’s left in a now-famous photograph of the president surrounded by top aides as they monitored the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
In his book “Obama’s Wars,” The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reported that Gen. James L. Jones, a former national security adviser, considered Obama’s tight circle of aides, including McDonough, a “major obstacle” to developing coherent Afghan policy.
One person who worked closely with McDonough described in an interview with The Post frustration about his handling of meetings on the U.S. drawdown in Iraq, saying it became increasingly clear that Obama and McDonough already had decided to leave no residual forces in the country in 2012 despite ongoing internal debate.