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6 Things You Need to Know About Denis McDonough

Get up to speed on the man most likely to be the next White House chief of staff.

Though he has mostly focused on domestic issues in laying out his second term agenda, U.S. President Barack Obama appears likely to dip into his foreign-policy team in appointing his next chief of staff -- the White House official responsible for making the trains run on time. The latest reports indicate he's leaning toward Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough.

It would be a major promotion: The chief of staff acts as both a key advisor and the staffer with the most influence in carrying out the president's agenda. The post has also frequently been a stepping-stone to cabinet-level -- or higher -- positions for such notables as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (under President Gerald Ford) James Baker (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush) and Leon Panetta (Bill Clinton).

But McDonough, though a ubiquitous presence in the White House and consummate Washington insider, doesn't have much of a public profile. Here are some key facts to know about Obama's new right-hand man.

1.  He's Washington to the bone

The former college football star from the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota arrived in the nation's capital in the mid-1990s to attend a master's program at Georgetown University. He was mentored early in his career by CIA legend Cleveland Cram -- a fellow St. John's University alumnus who was by then the agency's in-house historian. Getting his foot in the door on Capitol Hill as an intern for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, McDonough rose quickly, serving as committee staffer, advisor to committee chair Lee Hamilton, and then foreign-policy aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

It was McDonough who called then junior White House staffers John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales on the night of Sept. 11 to ask what the Senate could do to help -- a process that led to the "Authorization for the Use of Force Against Terrorists," which gave the George W. Bush administration the legal power to launch the war in Afghanistan. He was also Daschle's point man on discussions over the subsequent authorization of force in Iraq. (McDonough would tell journalist James Mann years later that Congress shouldn't have been so quick to agree to the White House's demands.)

After Daschle was defeated in 2005, McDonough worked for a short time for senator -- and future interior secretary -- Ken Salazar, then moved to the Center for American Progress, where he was a senior fellow focusing on foreign policy.

2.  He's one of the campaign guys

McDonough, 43, is a textbook example of an "Obamian," Mann's term for the young aides who joined the administration straight from the campaign trail and whose worldview had been shaped more by the post-9/11 years than by the Vietnam war. McDonough was recommended to Obama by their old boss Daschle, one of the earliest prominent Democrats to support the campaign, and worked under Mark Lippert, Obama's main foreign-policy aide and a fellow former Daschle staffer. (According to journalist Bob Woodward, Obama referred to his two main foreign policy advisors as "Thing one" and "Thing two" -- a Dr. Seuss reference.) In the summer of 2007, when Lippert, a Navy reservist, was called up to active duty, McDonough took his place as Obama's main day-to-day advisor on foreign affairs.

McDonough had first joined the administration as head of strategic communications for the National Security Council (NSC). He again took Lippert's place as the NSC's chief of staff in 2009 when Lippert again returned to the Navy, and was named deputy national security advisor in 2010.

According to Woodward, McDonough -- along with Lippert and speechwriter Ben Rhodes -- has been a key member of the campaign "tribe" within Obama's team, competing with the "Hillary tribe" at the State Department and the "Chicago tribe" centered around political advisor David Axelrod. Mann writes that "McDonough, Lippert and Rhodes worked so closely with Obama on foreign policy issues that they almost seemed like a single entity." The White House's top Afghanistan advisor, retired Gen. Douglas Lute, dubbed them less generously "the insurgency."

3.  He's Obama's enforcer

According to numerous accounts, when staffers receive a directive from McDonough, they can generally assume it's coming directly from the president. According to the  Helene Cooper of the New York Times, "When it comes to national security, Mr. Obama's inner circle is so tight it largely consists of Mr. McDonough." This has sometimes rubbed other staffers the wrong way, particularly Jones, who as national security advisor technically outranked McDonough but, according to Woodward's account, never enjoyed the easy rapport or access to the president of his young deputy. According to Mann's book, McDonough was -- for the most part -- the only White House staffer kept fully in the loop during the preparations for the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound.

McDonough's duties have often included calling in senior officials for a dressing down when they go off message. Senior figures including Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and the late Afghan envoy Richard Holbrooke have reportedly been on the receiving end of McDonough's broadsides.

4.  He keeps a low profile

Though he's a near-ubiquitous presence in high-profile national security meetings and seems to be constantly at the president's side, it can be difficult to pin down McDonough's worldview or the exact nature of his responsibilities -- which clearly go beyond the official mandate of his job -- as he rarely talks about himself, preferring to keep the spotlight on his boss. After Cooper's profile -- for which he declined to comment -- appeared in the Times in 2010, Slate's Jack Shafer took the paper to task for providing little new information about him.

McDonough's low profile might seem odd considering the frequency with which he talks to the press. Cooper's profile describes him haranguing a reporter all the way home from the White House to Takoma Park, a neighborhood on Washington's northeastern border, on his bicycle. As Mann puts it, McDonough "rarely said or did anything without the president's approval." Comparing his style with that of the outspoken, self-promoting Holbrooke, Mann writes that "nether was modest about calling reporters to try to shape a story in advance or to complain about something after it appeared. But the similarities stopped there. Holbrooke called the press on matters involving himself or his own causes; McDonough was a staff man who pushed, equally aggressively, on behalf of his boss."

5.  He's a realist

To the extent that we know anything about McDonough's views, he seems to be more in the realist camp. According to Mann's account, while Rhodes tended to argue that the United States should be providing more support for democratic movements abroad during the 2009 Iranian uprising and the Arab Spring, McDonough tended to be more cautious, siding with realists like future CIA Director nominee John Brennan and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon over interventionists like Susan Rice and Samantha Power. It was McDonough who cited former George H.W. Bush advisor Brent Scowcroft as a model for the Obama administration's foreign policy in 2010.

When asked why the administration had intervened in to topple a dictatorship in Libya as opposed to Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria in March 2011, McDonough said, "We don't make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region" -- a response that could be viewed as either textbook realism or a cynical excuse for inconsistency.

6.  He's not a Middle East guy

Given the national security debates of the 2012 election and the controversies that have emerged over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, one might get the impression U.S. foreign-policy is focused solely on the Middle East. McDonough's portfolio is a bit more varied. He was something of a generalist during his time as a fellow at CAP, for instance, writing about issues ranging from congressional oversight of the intelligence services to immigration to green energy and China.

His original interest was in Latin America, dating back to his college days when his favorite teacher was a Spanish professor and Borges scholar. He traveled widely in Latin America after college and taught for a while in Belize. As a House Foreign Relations Committee staffer, he handled the Latin America portfolio. Years later, he would be dispatched to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, where he reportedly played a critical role in pressuring Florida officials to resume medical evacuation flights.

McDonough was also an early and enthusiastic proponent of Obama's Asia "pivot," telling Mann, "We are reorienting our focus to Asia" nearly a year before Clinton officially announced the policy in an article for Foreign Policy.

But overall, McDonough seems to have been more enforcer than advisor, and his role in the second term is likely to be more about carrying out the president's policies than shaping them.

J. Dana Stuster contributed research to this article.

Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

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A Binder for Obama

Has the U.S. administration become too much of a boys' club? Here are 10 women the president could appoint to top national security jobs.

With the departure of Hillary Clinton and the scuttled nomination of Susan Rice -- and men slotted as nominees or returnees for key positions including secretary of state, defense secretary, CIA director, director of national intelligence, White House chief of staff, and national security advisor -- it's hard to avoid the impression that the Obama administration's foreign-policy team is something of a boy's club. As FP columnist Rosa Brooks put it in a recent article, "It's fine to say that such critical foreign-policy and national security positions ought to go to the best guy for the job, but sometimes, the best guy is a woman."

There are exceptions, of course: Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano might stay in their positions, and there are certainly plenty of high-ranking women scattered across various agencies, but at the uppermost levels, it's looking awfully male. (And awfully white, for that matter.) Now, some of the United States' most prominent female national security experts are finding themselves on the outside looking in.

Here are a few alternative names Barack Obama might want to consider for high-ranking posts:


Current job: Director of the Wilson Center

Qualifications: Jane Harman has been closely involved in U.S. national security policy since Jimmy Carter's administration, when she served as counsel to the Department of Defense. Over her two decades in Congress, Harman served on the Armed Services, Intelligence, and Homeland Security committees, traveling widely as part of congressional delegations. She stepped down in 2011 to run one of the country's most respected foreign-policy think tanks. She has lately been a critic of America's overreliance on drone strikes in counterterrorism. Due to her longtime interest and expertise in intelligence issues, she had been mentioned as a potential successor to David Petraeus as director of the CIA.


Current job: Board member at the Center for a New American Security

Qualifications: Michèle Flournoy served in several capacities in Bill Clinton's Defense Department and went on to co-found the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) -- one of Washington's most influential defense think tanks. She led Obama's defense transition team and from 2009 to 2012 ran the Pentagon's powerful policy shop. During the 2012 campaign, she was one of the Obama campaign's leading surrogates on foreign policy and more recently was one of the main names being mooted as defense secretary prior to Chuck Hagel's nomination. FP's Brooks made the case for Flournoy in December. She's knowledgeable, well-liked in Washington, and extremely capable.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images; Andy Wong-Pool/Getty Images


Current job: Lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and columnist for the Boston Globe

Qualifications: Juliette Kayyem previously served as assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, coordinating the Obama administration's response to crises including the BP oil spill, the Christmas Day attempted terrorist attack in 2009, and the H1N1 virus. One of the highest-ranking Arab Americans to serve in Obama's administration, she's a lawyer by training who specializes in protecting civil liberties while combating terrorist threats. Her columns, which range in topic from Arctic oil drilling to Israeli missile defense to Al Jazeera, are a testament to the wide range of her expertise.


Current job: Senator from California

Qualifications: First elected to the Senate in 1992, the former mayor of San Francisco has emerged as a leading voice on national security, becoming the first woman to chair the Select Subcommittee on Intelligence in 2009. Dianne Feinstein has been a frequent critic of U.S. intelligence efforts during the Obama administration -- particularly the CIA's failure to predict the Arab Spring -- but has also pushed measures, such as allowing federal agencies to continue to conduct warrantless wiretapping, through Congress over the objections of many congressional Democrats. After two decades in the Senate, it's possible Feinstein may be looking to focus more intensely on security issues.


Current job: Professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University

Qualifications: Anne-Marie Slaughter served as director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011, receiving wide acclaim for leading the department's inaugural Quadrennial Defense and Development Review process. Before that, she was dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs for seven years. Although she chose a uniquely public way to announce her reasons for leaving Washington -- with an Atlantic cover story on the difficulty women face raising children while holding down demanding jobs -- perhaps she could be coaxed back into the fold with the right job.

Jim Greenhill/Flickr; Freddie Lee/Fox News Sunday via Getty Images; KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images


Current job: President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Qualifications: Jessica Matthews has long-standing experience in government, having served on Jimmy Carter's National Security Council and in Bill Clinton's State Department, but first established herself as a leading foreign-policy thinker with the widely cited 1997 Foreign Affairs article "Power Shift," which predicted a move away from national governments years before "American decline" became a catchphrase. That same year, she took over as president of the Carnegie Endowment -- FP's former publisher -- and has expanded it into a global think tank with offices in five countries. Like Obama, she was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, and she has been calling for environmental issues to be part of the nation's national security portfolio - now conventional wisdom -- since the 1980s.


Current job: Incoming executive vice president, U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP)

Qualifications: An administration gig would be another quick turnaround for Kristin Lord, who was just named to her position at USIP after four years as director of studies at CNAS -- a time when the think tank emerged as perhaps Washington's most influential voice on military and security affairs. Before that, she held several positions at the Brookings Institution and George Washington University, focusing primarily on U.S. grand strategy. She was a special advisor to undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs Paula Dobriansky during George W. Bush's administration. She has recently argued that the State Department should take cues from the private sector in reforming its processes to become more cost-efficient.


Current job: U.S. representative from New York's 17th district

Qualifications: As the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Nita Lowey has been a leading congressional voice in defense of foreign aid spending, championing funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development, relief efforts in Darfur, increased attention to HIV/AIDS in the developing world, and enhancement of development work targeted at women's rights. She has national security experience as well, having served on the House's Select Intelligence Oversight Panel and the Homeland Security Subcommittee. As a bonus for the president's political advisors, unlike other leading congressional voices on national security like Jeanne Shaheen and Tammy Duckworth, she represents a safe Democratic district in suburban New York.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; United States Institute of Peace; Alex Wong/Getty Images


Current job: President of the Connect U.S. Fund, visiting distinguished scholar at the University of North Florida, chair of the Public Interest Declassification Board

Qualifications: Nancy Soderberg worked in the Clinton administration on both the National Security Council and the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. Since then she has been a vice president of the International Crisis Group, started her own consulting firm, written two acclaimed books on foreign policy, and run (unsuccessfully) for Florida's state Senate. Obama recently named her to lead the Public Interest Declassification Board, an advisory committee set up to promote government transparency, but her interests lie primarily in foreign affairs. As president of the Connect U.S. Fund, which pushes the United States to take a greater role in international governance, she has argued that human rights, development, and climate change should get top billing.


Current job: Executive director, National Security Network

Qualifications: Heather Hurlburt, a former Clinton speechwriter, has long been a leading voice calling for Democrats to take more of a leadership role on national security issues. Under her stewardship, the National Security Network has established close ties to Democratic congressional offices and the Obama administration, and she is a widely published writer on national security strategy and the politics of foreign policy. Fittingly, in 2011, she argued that U.S. foreign policy is hampered by the institutional sexism that keeps women out of positions of power.

U.S. Naval War College/Flickr; National Security Network