The Quiet Charm Offensive of Obama's Chief of Staff

Carolyn Kaster/AP

For an administration that has had a hard time creating and maintaining relationships on Capitol Hill, President Obama's new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, has emerged as a bridge builder early in the administration’s second term.

As Obama has undertaken a well-publicized outreach offensive, McDonough has kept a busy social calendar himself, quietly meeting with influential Republicans in the House and Senate.

This week, he had dinner with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He huddled on Capitol Hill with a dozen Senate Republicans shortly before the recent congressional recess. And last month, he met with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the former GOP presidential candidate, who told Timethat the ensuing discussion “was the first time I have had a candid conversation or a substantial conversation with a member of the Obama administration since they came into power.”

All across the Capitol, McDonough’s openness and availability is garnering positive reviews. Republicans say the 43-year-old former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle appears to understand the value of fostering goodwill from the legislative ranks.

Some see McDonough’s hidden hand guiding the president’s own personal push. McDonough and Ryan were sharing beers at Brasserie Beck, the tony K Street establishment, at the very same time that Obama had invited a dozen Republican senators to the White House for a steak dinner.

McDonough took the role of chief of staff in February, just as Obama’s Hill engagement increased. He was previously the deputy national security adviser and has been an Obama confidant dating back to the 2008 campaign.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, told National Journalhe’s been “very impressed” with McDonough “just opening the doors and saying, I’m interested in working with you.” That alone, Hatch said, marked a “pleasant change from what we’ve seen in the past.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who helped organize the guest list for a recent GOP dinner with Obama, agreed. “His new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, is really—I’ve personally appreciated the fact that he’s communicating,” Isakson told NJ. “[We] often times don’t agree, but the fact that we’re given the facts directly from the White House rather than reading about it in the paper makes a lot of difference.”

After the president’s recent GOP dinner dates, it was McDonough who followed up in person, meeting about a dozen GOP senators on Capitol Hill. There, he listened as they told him they wouldn’t budge on taxes, after tax increases on the wealthy were included in the fiscal-cliff deal.

McDonough is also hitting the phones, dialing up Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance. And as the president nominated his new pick for Transportation secretary, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, McDonough was on the phone with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, according to Thune spokeswoman AshLee Strong.

“The truth is, nobody out-works Denis McDonough,” President Obama said as he named him chief of staff earlier this year.

There has been no immediate legislative payoff from the flurry of communication between the opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But Democrats say they think thawing the icy relationship between congressional Republicans and the tightly controlled White House can only help.

As for McDonough, he has even extended the schmooze offensive to the White House press corps, making a rare surprise visit to the reporters toiling in the basement this week. He came bearing doughnuts.

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