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Obama may still need Denis McDonough on national security team

The trusted aide is being considered for chief of staff, but Obama doesn't want to shift McDonough without a 'stable team' in his inner circle of foreign policy advisors, a senior Democrat says.

January 17, 2013|By Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau
  • Denis McDonough, left, led the process by which President Obama scaled back the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and helped plan the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Above, he visits Honduras.
Denis McDonough, left, led the process by which President Obama scaled… (Gustavo Amador, European…)

WASHINGTON — President Obama is considering White House insider Denis McDonough to serve as his chief of staff, but officials say the decision is caught up in deliberations about the makeup of his national security team.

As one of the president's deputy national security advisors and a trusted aide, McDonough is an influential player in the White House foreign policy apparatus. Obama recently named another deputy national security advisor, John Brennan, as his choice to head the CIA.

Obama doesn't want to shift McDonough until he has a "stable team" in his inner circle of foreign policy advisors, said one senior Democrat who noted that McDonough and Brennan, who is the administration's anti-terrorism expert, had played key roles.

But the clock is ticking. The chief of staff position will officially open up if the current occupant, Jacob J. Lew, wins Senate confirmation as Treasury secretary.

McDonough, who joined the Obama team during the 2008 campaign, is one of the most frequent visitors to the Oval Office, according to regular participants in the president's meetings who, like other administration officials, requested anonymity to discuss internal talks.

McDonough, 43, is known at the White House for his devotion to Obama. Advisors say he is more familiar with the president's views on foreign policy than anyone else in his circle. McDonough led the process by which the president scaled back the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and helped plan the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Most recently, he was charged with containing the political fallout over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya.

McDonough's deep familiarity with the White House operation and the challenges the president faces in his second term may be the qualifications Obama most wants. His next chief of staff will have to manage a complicated matrix of foreign and domestic issues while keeping a constant eye on the series of fiscal cliffhangers ahead.

A native of Stillwater, Minn., McDonough graduated from St. John's University and earned a master's degree in foreign service from Georgetown University. He then worked as a foreign policy advisor for Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. He was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, before serving as a senior advisor on foreign policy issues on Obama's first presidential campaign and then on the transition team four years ago.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to discuss the president's thinking on his choices for top posts in his second term, saying Obama is "considering a variety of personnel decisions carefully and will make announcements when he's made the decision."

For weeks now, Democrats have been talking about Susan Rice, the United Nations ambassador, as a candidate to replace national security advisor Tom Donilon. Administration officials say Donilon is expected to leave, but the timing of his departure is unclear.

Rice was Obama's leading choice to serve as secretary of State until it became clear that Republicans in Congress would strenuously oppose her confirmation. She withdrew from consideration as they criticized her public explanation of what had happened in Benghazi, Libya.

As the president's national security advisor, Rice would have almost as much influence over foreign policy as the secretary of State, but the appointment does not require Senate confirmation.

Obama may also tap Tony Blinken, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, to join the president's national security team. A member of the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, Blinken later served as Biden's chief staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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