By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010; A1
President Obama's promotion of Thomas E. Donilon on Friday to the post of national security adviser is an acknowledgment that the administration is entering a phase in which domestic political considerations will press more forcefully on foreign policy decisions.
Donilon, the most senior deputy national security adviser, will replace James L. Jones in the top job by the end of the month. The transition, which Obama outlined Friday in a Rose Garden ceremony, will ensure continuity in policy as the war in Afghanistan enters a decisive stage and elevate an ally of Vice President Biden, who argued most strenuously against a large military escalation there.
Although Jones's departure has been expected, it comes as the Obama administration is beginning to reorganize its policy and political operations in preparation for the term's second half. Obama's conservative critics complain that his foreign policy, particularly his plan to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next summer, is driven too much by his political calculations.
Donilon, a lawyer who served as Secretary of State Warren Christopher's chief of staff during the Clinton administration, has been a nearly invisible behind-the-scenes player in Washington for decades. But he brings a far richer understanding of Washington's political culture than did Jones, a retired Marine general who often found himself outside the bureaucratic loop during his short tenure as national security adviser.
Although less well known than his predecessor in foreign capitals, Donilon understands Congress, party politics and the electoral map in a way that could prove invaluable to Obama at this point in his presidency.
Obama is looking to wind down two wars, create jobs by promoting U.S. exports in places such as China, and broker a peace settlement in the Middle East - issues that could energize or alienate various parts of the Democratic base as he begins his bid for reelection in 2012.
"Tom has a wealth of experience that will serve him well in this new assignment," Obama said. "We have some huge challenges ahead."
Obama said he is "extraordinarily thankful" to Jones for coming out of retirement two years ago to join the administration, calling him a "steady voice" during White House briefings and in meetings with foreign leaders.
He brought decades of national security experience to the post and military credibility to an administration whose senior civilian members have never served in uniform.
But Jones often had trouble fitting into a National Security Council dominated by several hard-charging veterans of Obama's campaign who have known the president for years. His condition for initially taking the job - that he would be the last one to see Obama on the most pressing national security issues of the day - often went unmet.
"I think in many ways he was underrated," said a White House official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal personnel assessments. "But there has been a lame-duck quality to this for months."
Donilon has run the "deputies meetings" that gather the No. 2-ranking officials from across the national security bureaucracy, turning them into an even more important and influential venue for initial policy decisions and strategy.
Obama said that "over the last two years, there is not a single national security issue that has not crossed Tom's desk," noting that Donilon's renowned work ethic is fueled largely by Diet Coke.
"Operationally Tom has been running the National Security Council since the start," the official said. "Jones was kind of a CEO, and Tom has been the COO."
During the Afghanistan strategy review last fall, Donilon was credited with overseeing the complicated process, which often pitted the uniformed military against White House civilian advisers over the value of sending additional troops to an increasingly unpopular war.
The war is particularly unpopular with the Democratic base - voters Obama will need to turn out in force if he is to win reelection - even as his generals appeal for more time on the ground in Afghanistan.
Like Jones, Donilon questioned the need for additional forces in the region, a position Obama eventually rejected by sending 30,000 additional U.S. troops in a "surge" that he plans to begin drawing down in July 2011. He will take his new post before the December strategy review that will begin to set the terms of the debate over how quickly to pull troops out of Afghanistan.
Donilon remains personally and professionally close to Biden, who argued for a strategy in Afghanistan that would rely on fewer troops and more targeted counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda. Donilon's wife, Cathy Russell, serves as chief of staff to Biden's wife, Jill Biden.
Donilon hardly knew Obama before being brought onto his campaign to help him prepare for the 2008 presidential debates. He is also personally close to former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and was on a very short list to fill that post after Emanuel's recent resignation to run for mayor of Chicago.
Jones made clear that he intended to serve no more than two years, and a person close to Jones said he told Obama this summer that he wanted to leave before the end of the year. Obama asked him to stay until January, the person said.
But several administration officials said Friday that his departure was accelerated by the publication of Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars," which portrayed Jones as a deeply unhappy figure often on the edge of important policy decisions.
By contrast, Donilon is part of a cadre of deputy national security advisers to whom Obama has often turned before consulting more senior administration officials, including Jones, on an array of foreign policy matters.
The practice has concentrated enormous power in the NSC, often to the consternation of the State Department and other foreign-policymaking agencies.
Those deputies include Denis McDonough, a foreign policy pragmatist with Capitol Hill experience and a close relationship with the president. McDonough, a fierce defender of the president, is considered the one most likely to replace Donilon as the senior deputy.
Jon Alterman, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Donilon "has had his hands in the middle of every single policy decision this administration has made."
In his book, Woodward reported that Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said Donilon would be a "disaster" as national security adviser. The two were often at odds during the Afghanistan strategy review.
In a Friday news conference, Gates said, "I have had a very productive and good working relationship with Tom Donilon, contrary to what you may have read, and continue to look forward to working with him."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.