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What Will Obama's Choice for Chief of Staff Say About His Management Style?

Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, a leading candidate to be Obama's next Chief of Staff. Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, a leading candidate to be Obama's next Chief of Staff. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Denis McDonough and Ron Klain, two men steeped in Capitol Hill and West Wing experience, are both front runners to succeed White House chief of staff Jack Lew, who has been tapped by President Obama to become the next Treasury secretary.

The pick of either McDonough or Klain would be in keeping with Obama’s pattern of filling the top jobs for his second term with people he knows well and trusts implicitly. The next chief of staff will be Obama's fourth. Of the three men who have served in the job under Obama, the even-tempered Lew best fit Obama's "no drama" management style. Either McDonough or Klain would be in sync with that ethos, too. Both are known as loyal, efficient and highly skilled at making things run smoothly. But McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, and Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, would bring very different portfolios to the White House chief of staff role and the decision will say a lot about how Obama plans to approach his own job in the next four years.

McDonough’s foreign policy expertise could be a big plus since many two-term presidents choose to give a heavy emphasis to global affairs in their second four years. Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was a hard-driving former congressman who devoted a huge amount of time to pushing Obama’s domestic agenda through Congress, including the 2009 economic stimulus package and the president’s signature health care law. McDonough, a Minnesotan, has strong connections on Capitol Hill, having served as a foreign policy adviser to former Senator Tom Daschle.

McDonough, who has been a member of Obama’s tight inner circle since the 2008 campaign, has a much closer personal relationship with the president. While serving as foreign policy adviser to Obama during the 2008, McDonough logged many hours on the plane with the then-candidate. He was a top adviser during the transition before moving to the White House National Security Council, where his initial role was shaping the NSC's communications strategy. When Tom Donilon became national security adviser in 2010, McDonough moved to the No. 2 job at NSC.

Obama has long had a tendency to rely heavily for advice on a handful of close aides. Some critics see this approach as too insular but as Obama prepares to take the oath of office for a second time, he has not shown any inclination to want to change this aspect of his management style. Many people also believe he needs to do more to reach out to important constituencies, including Congress and the business community. David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and expert on the NSC, says more outreach to Congress would be helpful for Obama but adds that either McDonough or Klain could become an important player in that effort.

Rothkopf says McDonough’s strong rapport with Obama would be an asset in the job. “Denis has the advantage of being close to the president,” he says. “In this White House, having the trust of the president is absolutely sine qua non if you want to actually be a player. And this president is very parsimonious with his trust.”

Klain also brings many strengths. Rothkopf describes him as a “formidable professional” who gets along well with people and “gets things done.” But Klain’s main ties to Obama are through Biden. Klain, who also served as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, played a big role in advising Gore in the 2000 election recount and was later portrayed by Kevin Spacey in a movie about the saga. After working for Biden for two years, he left the administration.

If Klain were to be chosen, it would indicate the rising influence of Biden within the administration. Donilon is a former Biden aide. Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, and John Kerry, the nominee for secretary of state, both served with the president in the Senate but their ties with Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran, go back even further.

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