Obama taps McDonough as chief of staff, says goodbye to longtime adviser Plouffe

President Obama named deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough as his new White House chief of staff on Friday. McDonough, a longtime Obama advisor, will succeed Jack Lew, who has been nominated to take the helm at the Treasury Department. (The Washington Post)

President Obama announced a reshuffling of his top White House personnel Friday, naming Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough as his new chief of staff and saying goodbye to longtime senior adviser David Plouffe, a key architect of his political strategy.

Obama promoted McDonough, one of his most trusted and loyal deputies, to oversee White House operations as the administration tackles its major second-term legislative initiatives, including gun-control measures, immigration reform and tax and budget issues.

McDonough, 43, replaced Jack Lew, whom Obama has nominated to run the Treasury Department. White House officials said Tony Blinken, a national security adviser to Vice President Biden, would replace McDonough as the No. 2 official on the National Security Council. Obama also named Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco to replace Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan, who has been nominated to lead the CIA.

Monaco adds more female diversity among the administration’s top leadership, as Obama seeks to rebut criticism that his national security team, in particular, is too dominated by men. In addition to Lew and Brennan, Obama has nominated white men to head the departments of State and Defense, although this week he also named Mary Jo White to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Inside the West Wing, Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, who, like McDonough, is a veteran of Obama’s 2008 campaign, will replace Plouffe, the leading political adviser during Obama’s first term.

Announcing the moves in the East Room, Obama lavished warm praise on McDonough, calling him a “consummate public servant” and a “close friend” to everyone at the White House. McDonough, a Capitol Hill veteran who worked for former senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), helped set up Obama’s Senate office in 2005, showing him where the bathrooms were and explaining how to pass a legislative proposal, the president recalled.

“Since then, I’ve relied on his intellect and good judgment,” Obama said. “Denis has played a key role in every key national security decision in my presidency.”

Obama also paid tribute to Plouffe, who was sitting in the front row of the audience, saying he earned a “well-deserved reputation as being a numbers genius — and a pretty tough combatant when it comes to politics.”

McDonough will be Obama’s fourth permanent chief of staff, succeeding Rahm Emanuel, William Daley and Lew. (Pete Rouse spent several months as interim chief of staff after Emanuel’s departure in 2010.) McDonough helped guide the military drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the response to earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. But his personal relationship with the president meant that the Minnesota native’s influence inside the West Wing was far broader.

The devout Catholic also served as an informal religious adviser, helped reach out to minorities and acted as a political strategist and enforcer of internal administration discipline. He is described as a tireless, demanding and sometimes brusque boss who is not averse to dressing down senior staff.

“I know you’ll always give it to me straight, as only a friend can,” Obama said during his remarks, flanked by McDonough and Lew. “Telling me not only what I want to hear but what I need to hear to make the best decisions on behalf of the American people.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said McDonough is “a steady hand, smart guy, and is well respected on both sides of the aisle.”

Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, where McDonough worked in the mid-2000s said: “Denis is a shrewd thinker, smart policy innovator, and cares deeply that America reach its promise for all its citizens.”

In other moves announced by Obama, Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors will become deputy chief of staff for policy; he will be replaced by Miguel Rodriguez.

David Simas, a pollster for the Obama campaign, is joining the White House as deputy senior adviser in the communications shop. Danielle Gray and Katy Kale were named as assistants to the president.

While most of the appointees have worked within the White House or vice president’s office, Monaco comes from the Justice Department, where she was one of the highest-ranking women. At Justice, Monaco has served as assistant attorney general for national security since 2011. A graduate of Harvard and the University of Chicago Law School, she is widely respected by officials with the Republican and Democratic parties. She previously worked for FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, serving as his counsel and chief of staff.

“Lisa has no rival when it comes to her dedication to this nation, her experience in national security issues and her excellent judgment,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said.

In interviews, Michael Mukasey, a former attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, and Patrick Fitzgerald, a former U.S. attorney from Illinois, praised Monaco for her judgment, deliberate style and thoughtful decisions.

“She listens and doesn’t jump to an answer,” Fitzgerald said. “She will get the room to the right place in a way that ruffles as few feathers as possible. When the president turns to her, she will give great advice.”

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department, after 30 years at the paper where she has been an investigative reporter and covered federal law enforcement, crime, education and social services.
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