White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Friday that President Obama hopes to make progress on key issues during his final year in office, declaring that “we are not coasting through the year.” And he said that the administration is still striving to confront the Islamic State and ease Americans' anxiety about terrorism.
“In terms of the year ahead, we are open for business,” McDonough said, adding that the administration is eyeing a series of issues, including criminal-justice reform and the approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
“We have yet another half of the fourth quarter of this administration,” he said, “so we’re working really hard on that.”
Reiterating the president's willingness to turn to executive actions when necessary, he said that Obama would seek to win support in Congress for legislation but that “if they’re not willing to act, we’re going to pull every lever we can.”
McDonough made his comments at the Washington Post offices, where he was attending a ceremony celebrating the centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism. Post columnist Eugene Robinson moderated.
McDonough also said that the administration had failed to ease Americans' concerns about terrorism and the rise of the Islamic State and to confront violent Islamist extremists in cyberspace as well as on the ground in the Middle East.
"This is the area where in my view I've failed the president most dramatically," he said. "And we are bound and determined to leave the next president a much more effective infrastructure to allow us to confront that stuff." Until that happens, he said, "we're going to continue to confront greater unease among the American people."
"The thing we have to do is underscore to the American people that this is the principal priority that we’re focused on every day," he continued, "that they needn't have the responsibility to be worried about this all day every day, because that’s what our job is."
McDonough added, "We have to be much better at getting out and contesting these ideas in the spaces where these ideas are propagated."
"I think that the ability of some of the most heinous actors to get some unbelievably hateful propaganda onto the phone of any individual anywhere on the face of the Earth is a huge challenge," he said.
On the domestic front, the White House chief of staff said Obama had accomplished a lot during the past year, ticking off issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, protecting the Export-Import Bank and opening up relations with Cuba. “I’d stack his Year 7 against any Year 7,” he said.
Asked about Syria, McDonough said that the president was concerned about three aspects: stopping threats to the United States, mobilizing regional forces closest to the conflict and addressing the humanitarian catastrophe.
“We have seen important progress over the last several months,” he said. “It is by no means sufficient.”
Regarding the Obama administration’s relations with the press and complaints that the current White House is among the most controlling ever, McDonough said that “if there’s not a degree of friction between the White House and the press, someone is not doing his job.” He said that former senator Tom Daschle has called the friction “the music of democracy.” He said, “Sometimes it’s not very melodious, but without it there’s no democracy.”