09.28.10

The Next Rahm?

Amid reports Obama’s chief of staff may leave any day now, national-security star Tom Donilon is high on the short list. Richard Wolffe on his Biden roots, workaholic ways—and what Woodward got wrong.

He’s “the White House official with the greatest influence on the day-to-day workings of national-security policy,” according to The New York Times.

He’s also known for his “impulsive statements and snap judgments,” and would be a “disaster” if he ever rose above his job as deputy national-security adviser, according to Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars.

Will the real Thomas Donilon please stand up—in time for America to decide whether this little-known but widely discussed Washington player deserves his place on the short list for some of the most important jobs in government—including White House chief of staff, a job now held by Rahm Emanuel, who may decide to exit as early as this week?

You won’t see Donilon out chatting on the cable talk shows, or quoted in major newspapers. But maybe he doesn’t need to. Without benefit of a public profile, Donilon has become one of a handful of candidates credibly mentioned to succeed Rahm—who is expected to move back to Chicago and run for mayor—or take Jim Jones’ job as national-security adviser.

So what explains the wildly divergent recent accounts of Donilon’s skills and political standing with the West Wing?

White House aides say Woodward is way off the mark.

“Inside the NSC, 95 percent of policy decisions get made before they reach the principals, and that’s because of Donilon and the work he does with the deputies,” one aide says. “It works because he’s so efficient and obsessively well-prepared for everything he has to do. He manages to keep on top of an incredible volume” of stuff.

Indeed, Donilon is famous internally for his workload—even among the perpetually slammed staffers who inhabit the West Wing. His pedal-to-the-metal habits are especially striking in comparison with those of his boss, Jones—a retired general and former supreme commander of NATO described by Woodward as taking a “limited definition of his job.”

“Inside the NSC, 95 percent of policy decisions get made before they reach the principals, and that’s because of Donilon and the work he does with the deputies,” a White House aide says.

Tunku Varadarajan: Rahm Is America’s Prime MinisterThat contrast between deputy and principal is what has earned Donilon high grades from Obama’s closest aides. Without Donilon, they say, the NSC would struggle to cope with extensive policy reviews, two wars, the rising threat of Iran, and the ambitious hopes for peace talks in the Middle East.

Donilon’s performance managing the sprawling national-security apparatus lies at the heart of his qualification for the greater burden of White House chief of staff. For instance, he successfully coordinated the massive response to the Haiti earthquake this year, under intense political and time pressures, working with agencies and departments across the administration.

It helps that Donilon is deeply immersed in Washington and Democratic politics. He has deep ties to Vice President Biden and the State Department.

Donilon served in the Carter White House and worked on the Mondale campaign, before advising then-Senator Biden on Supreme Court nominations on the Judiciary Committee. During that period, Biden helped lead the charge against Robert Bork, the bloody Supreme Court confirmation fight that helped usher in an era of brutal partisan warfare.

Donilon’s ties to Biden do not stop there: His brother Mike Donilon is Biden’s longstanding political consultant (now counselor), and his wife Cathy Russell is chief of staff to Mrs. Biden.  Another credential that might help Donilon win promotion: He knows how the media works, having held a job as a pundit for CBS in 1988, and run public affairs at the State Department during President Clinton’s first term. Donilon served as chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher.  

He’s also done his time in the political trenches. As a campaign veteran and lawyer at O’Melveny and Myers, he was a classic Democratic fixer with a specialty in debate prep for Democratic candidates from Michael Dukakis to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Donilon also worked at the collapsed mortgage giant Fannie Mae for several years, but kept his hand in foreign-policy circles through the Council on Foreign Relations and as a congressional adviser on national security. 

Another contender for a top job, should the White House shakeup continue: NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough, who effectively ran the sprawling foreign-policy operations inside the Obama campaign. If anyone can rival Donilon’s work ethic and influence, it may be McDonough, who staffs the president on foreign-policy issues. 

According to Obama’s close aides, the president has yet to indicate what kind of character he would like to replace Emanuel. Would he reach into the ranks of Biden loyalists, and tap Donilon, or perhaps the vice president’s chief of staff, Ron Klain? Or would Obama choose someone with closer ties to his own campaign and Senate office, such as senior adviser Pete Rouse or former campaign manager David Plouffe? Or would he go outside the White House to refresh his inner circle, amid criticism that he needs a dose of fresh blood?

The answer may be in before the week is out.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.