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.
More recently, some national security aides have lobbied since the November election to reopen the policy debate about U.S. sanctions on Syria to see if there is more the administration can do to stop the bloody government crackdown on rebel forces. But McDonough has blocked the attempts, saying the president believes U.S. policy is working, said the administration official who requested anonymity.
McDonough is known to carry White House notecards in his pockets, whipping them out to scribble messages during meetings and passing them around the room. Most of the notes are policy questions, but some can be mocking insults, said one official who has attended the meetings. He also is not averse to cursing at those who frustrate or anger him.
“The White House is a pressure cooker,” said Shawn Brimley, who served as director for strategic planning at the NSC from 2011 to 2012. “If he sees people hedging or a cover-your-[rear] mentality, he calls that out. It’s never personal.”
Jeffrey Bader, a former senior director of East Asian affairs at the NSC, said McDonough coordinated the massive U.S. response to the Japan tsunami in the spring of 2011. At one point, naval officials at the U.S. base in Yokosuka argued that the radiation threat was much more severe than the Japanese government had disclosed, setting up a potential diplomatic crisis.
Bader called McDonough at 2 a.m. and McDonough immediately sprang from bed and arranged for a scientific laboratory analysis of radiation levels that showed the Navy’s assessment was inaccurate.
“At 5 a.m., he gave the answer to stand down,” said Bader, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It was politically difficult because we couldn’t be seen not standing behind the safety of American citizens or going against the Navy.”
McDonough’s influence extends beyond national security. A devout Catholic, he has served as something of an informal Obama counselor on religious matters, such as during last year’s debate over the White House’s handling of contraception rules under the new health-care law.
Some female staff members have said Obama’s inner circle of male advisers, including McDonough, acts like a jocular boys club that has excluded women. The issue has flared anew in recent weeks with the nominations of four white men to Obama’s Cabinet.
But Flournoy said McDonough has an empathetic side. She recalled requesting a high-level meeting, only to call him later that night asking to postpone after her son broke down in tears because she would have to miss a school event.
McDonough rescheduled and later presented her a goody bag filled with White House candy and a personal note for her son that said, “Thanks so much for sharing your mommy.”
“That was one of the most lovely things anyone has done for me in my time in government,” Flournoy said. “The human side of Denis really came through.”