The Mystery Of Denis McDonough

The low-key man running the White House in Barack Obama's worst year.

Denis McDonough has spent more time running America than perhaps anyone else who has never been the subject of a satisfying profile.

The New Republic captured something important in 2009 with a piece that reflected McDonough's obsession with "regular order." The Times sweetened the beat with a Saturday profile in 2010; the Daily Beast captured slightly more of his "savage" edge and personality this January. Remarkably, BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray was the only one to remark on what has always struck me as a central, and poignant, biographical detail: that McDonough played a key role in authorizing the Iraq War in 2003.

White House staffers were notably unhelpful when BuzzFeed asked for an interview with him this month. The Times's Peter Baker managed, at least, to get the White House chief of staff to talk on the record about himself Wednesday, pretty much a first. But one of the core mysteries of this White House remains.

The mystery of Denis McDonough is very much the mystery of why President Barack Obama's second term is going so badly. Here, for people who watch the building closely, is the underlying conundrum: The Obama White House has never worked better, on a day-to-day level. The chief of staff, for once, actually gets along with the other power brokers in the building: Michelle Obama; Valerie Jarrett; Peter Rouse — there are none of the sharp elbows and infighting that came with Rahm Emanuel's or David Axelrod's ill-concealed distrust of Jarrett, in particular. He is the first to learn the names of junior staffers. He sends thank you cards. "The paradox of Denis is that he's so unfailingly courteous to people that he works with, and yet is an incredible hardass," a former White House staffer said.

But the outcomes have never been worse.

"The White House actually runs day-to-day a lot better than it ever has," said a second former White House staffer, who credited McDonough's roots in the process-obsessed foreign policy world. "You have meetings, you have agendas, when you're done with the meeting you decide who is going to do what, and then there's accountability for it getting done."

And yet: McDonough took over as White House chief of staff on Jan. 25, and what has followed has been a pretty terrible year. The president's top legislative priority, fixing immigration laws, has stalled out. His plan to stop Syria's descent into chaos was a pure debacle. And the implementation of his most important domestic policy accomplishment, the health care overhaul, is a mess. Obama is less popular than ever.

McDonough, who rose from being a staffer to a junior Western senator before the 2008 campaign to one of America's most powerful unelected positions, has generally avoided blame, or even attention. This is partly because he is a modest guy who never flew too close to the sun of a high media profile in the happier first term. It's partly because he is widely seen as a decent and tireless person, the hardest worker in a building of obsessives. It's partly because he is so close to the president that blame naturally falls on Obama himself. It's partly because he hasn't tried too hard to deflect blame.

"I'm a keep-score guy; I always have been," McDonough told Baker. "So I'm good with the idea that there are scores being kept."

And yet McDonough's no-profile public approach shouldn't mask the two most important things about the role he has played this year. First, he is a chief of staff for a self-actualized president. Obama hired seasoned Washington figures — Rahm Emanuel, Jack Lew, and Bill Daley — in his first term. McDonough is the first chief of staff who is younger than the president, the first whose career depends on Obama. He is, beyond that, very close to the president.

He is "as close as a staffer can be," said former National Security spokesman Tommy Vietor.

The upside of that relationship is that McDonough speaks for Obama and has access to him in a way that Daley, in particular, never did. The downside is that the chaotic testing of ideas and plans that came with Emanuel — who opposed the entire health care plan, and whose opposition leaked to the press — has been replaced by a kind of steely internal consensus, in which McDonough is less a broker of internal debate than an enforcer of the presidential will; McDonough's side — that is, Obama's — usually wins, as it did when he defeated Samantha Power's arguments for a stronger American hand in Syria.

"There's a pro and a con about being so trusted and loved by the president that you don't push him back," said the second former White House staffer. "If you have so many people around the president who are really friends then you don't have that team of rivals thing that was a healthy give and take."

The second key fact about McDonough's tenure is that his career has been spent in foreign policy, and with Lew — a former OMB director — gone, it is not in fact immediately clear who is the top domestic policy staffer. It's a contrast that can be seen in the structure of two policies: Talks with Iran were conducted in total secrecy and with intense focus by the most senior, talented diplomats the American government could produce, and with close and careful attention to the White House. The health care rollout was managed by a middle-manager at a non-cabinet agency; it's unthinkable that a desk officer at the State Department would control the implementation of a vital foreign policy move.

Indeed, McDonough remains very deeply involved in the foreign policy weeds. John Kerry's aides at the State Department, a source said, were surprised to find McDonough himself ready to go to war to put his and Obama's allies — rather than Kerry's — into even relatively junior "Schedule C" posts.

"No one owns domestic policy the way Rahm did," said a former Emanuel aide.

The Obama presidency has, like most, been one in which strengths are interchangeable with weaknesses: There's confidence or arrogance; discipline or insularity; centralized control or a failure to delegate. And the second term, difficult so far, is still beginning. But understanding the term will probably mean paying more attention to Denis McDonough.

Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed reporting.

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