Denis McDonough & Ron Klain Top Contenders for White House Chief of Staff

Eleanor Clift on the chances of Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough and former Biden chief of staff Ron Klain.

Two skilled inside-Washington players top the list of likeliest to become President Obama’s next chief of staff. Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough and former Joe Biden chief of staff Ron Klain are tough-minded, disciplined political operatives who bring somewhat varying strengths, but either would easily fill the bill for what is one of the most demanding jobs in government.

McDonough is thought to have the inside track. Obama likes to reward good performance and promote from within, and McDonough, 43, has been with the president the longest, going back to when Obama was the freshman senator from Illinois. “Denis has been with Obama from the creation, and that’s important to the president,” says P.J. Crowley, former State Department spokesman. “Whenever he’s made a tough decision, Denis was in the room.”

Although McDonough is most closely associated now with national security, his choice would not necessarily signal an elevation of foreign over domestic concerns. As with most of Obama’s personnel decisions, it would turn mainly on personal chemistry. “He’s definitely in the ‘No-Drama Obama’ camp,” says Jim Manley, a former top staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “He’s prone to an occasional epithet à la Rahm [Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff], but he’s not even close in that category. He’s not a soft touch either.”

A graduate of St. John’s University in Minnesota, where he played football, the 6-foot-3 McDonough is one of Obama’s basketball buddies. One of 11 children in a devoutly religious Irish-Catholic family (two of his brothers are priests), McDonough is mindful of the toll that his high-pressure job can take on his health. He gets on the scale regularly to make sure his weight doesn’t top 200 pounds, and he bikes home when he can to Takoma Park, Md., a leafy suburb just over the District line.

Klain has a higher profile in Washington, having been at the center of the Bush v. Gore legal wrangling after the 2000 election. Kevin Spacey portrayed him in the HBO movie Recount. He’s been a superstar, working on Capitol Hill and in the White House for decades, a fixture on lists of top staffers and top lawyers under the age of 40. Now 51, he was on Vice President Biden’s staff for the administration’s first two years, and when Emanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago, Klain was mentioned as a possible successor.

Passed over then, Klain this time—if he got the job—would provoke speculation about what it means for Biden and how the White House might position policy and politics with an eye toward a Biden presidential run in 2016. That’s as overstated as seeing McDonough’s choice indicating a shift toward foreign policy. In the end, Obama will make his choice based on his personal comfort level knowing that both these men have the personal discipline to do a grindingly difficult job day in and day out and the leadership skills to impose that discipline on others.

“Your most important job is to say no,” says Manley—no to staffers who want a few minutes with the president, no to legislation pushed by various groups, no to a schedule that is too punishing. The chief of staff is the gatekeeper, which translates into a great deal of power, but far from absolute. Departing Chief of Staff Jack Lew knew how to navigate the other power center in the West Wing, longtime presidential friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett. Some say Jarrett is the real chief of staff; either way, working well with Jarrett is a requisite part of the job.

With Obama’s second term threatening to be overwhelmed by budget gridlock and fiscal warfare, an ability to deal with Congress effectively is a huge part of the next chief of staff’s portfolio. Both contenders have extensive experience in the Senate, Klain having worked with Biden on the Judiciary Committee and McDonough as a key staffer for Senate leader Tom Daschle before moving over to Obama’s Senate staff.

The Senate is a much different place from the House, but both have the savvy and the stomach to engage in the kind of brinksmanship practiced in Congress today.

And yes, they are white men in an administration that just got reelected on the strength of its appeal to women and minorities. Some women’s groups are justifiably disappointed by the lack of women in top jobs. Crowley urges that the president’s second-term nominations, all white men so far, be viewed as “a sweep as opposed to taking a snapshot.” Crowley is convinced U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice will succeed Tom Donilon as national-security adviser and that Janet Napolitano, currently heading the Homeland Security Department, will follow Attorney General Eric Holder to lead the Justice Department when Holder steps down, perhaps in just a few months.

“There will be women that play a significant role in the second administration, but for a variety of reasons, he [Obama] has to wait to make all those moves,” says Crowley.

Not having to face another election, Obama appears less responsive to outside pressures than to his own need to feel comfortable with his new second-term team as he braces for the challenges ahead.