Obama signals renewed focus on foreign policy with new chief of staff

President Obama's choice of a foreign policy expert and longtime aide to become his chief of staff is widely seen as evidence that the president plans to emulate his predecessors, who used their second terms to put their mark on the world.

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By tapping Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough for the role, Obama is also picking a former House and Senate staffer who's known for keeping out of the spotlight. 

Some observers say the choice of a former congressional insider suggests Obama hopes to build consensus ahead of tough choices facing the United States in hot spots such as Iran, Syria and the Middle East.

“In Denis McDonough, the president not only has someone who will be completely loyal to him, but he has really a partner in being able to carry out an agenda based on his vision,” said Douglas Wilson, a who worked with McDonough as assistant secretary of Defense from early 2010 to last March. “McDonough has the complete trust of the president, not just as a foreign policy adviser and strategist, but as a senior leader who knows how to build consensus and reach out and make sure that all stakeholders [who] are involved in a policy get to participate as it's being developed.”

Others conclude from McDonough's close ties to Obama that the president intends to shove through his policies both foreign and domestic.

“He’s no foreign policy guy — Denis is an enforcer,” said a conservative defense analyst. “In the mafia, he’d be the guy who kills people.”

Wilson said he expected particular focus on the Obama administration's pivot to Asia, counter-terrorism and trade, as well as “a renewed emphasis on the aspirational parts of foreign policy.”

“When this president was elected, he received the acclaim of the world” — Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his vision — “and I think you're going to see this president try to build upon that and make clear that America, no question, has a leadership role in the world.”

The president's fourth chief of staff served on the staff of the House foreign affairs panel — then known as the House International Relations Committee — in the late 1990s after graduating from Georgetown's foreign policy school. He later worked as a senior foreign policy adviser for then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), before joining Obama's senatorial staff in 2007.

Obama has kept decision-making on major issues like the war in Afghanistan and the crisis in Syria inside the White House, where McDonough has had a major role shaping U.S. policy decisions, as evidenced by his presence in the Situation Room the night Osama bin Laden was killed. 

The president called McDonough “an indispensable member” of his national security team when announcing several new staff positions on Friday.

“From growing the economy and shrinking our deficits, to keeping our country safe and addressing the dangers of climate change, these are people who will not rest until we get the job done,” Obama said. “Led by Denis, this team is an extraordinary group of talented individuals with whom I will be honored to work.”

McDonough's selection is but the latest in a string of recent signals that the president is reengaging with the world after being consumed by the struggling economy in the months before the presidential election.

Vice President Biden is meeting with European leaders in Germany, France and Britain early next month, even as he's taken on a busy domestic agenda as point person on the “fiscal cliff” talks and the gun violence debate.

“At all stops,” the White House said, “the vice president will discuss with key leaders a full range of bilateral, regional and global issues.”

And Obama himself made a historic trip to Burma and Cambodia — two countries that had never hosted a sitting U.S. president — right after the election. The visits were his first in five months, since his June 2012 trip to Mexico for the G20 summit.

The president has also tapped foreign policy heavyweights for a slew of other positions, including former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to be secretary of Defense and chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, an architect of Obama's drone policy, to take over the CIA. And he chose Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the Senate's foreign policy dean, to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of State.

During his confirmation hearing Thursday, Kerry vowed to work closely with his soon-to-be former colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But he also made it clear that the administration he's joining won't allow itself to be hamstrung by a Senate that over the past year has blocked action on issues the White House considers crucial, such as joining the United Nations' Law of the Sea Treaty.

“There are a lot of us that are becoming increasingly concerned about all this talk regarding executive agreements as opposed to treaties that are negotiated by the executive branch as contemplated by the Founding Fathers and ratified, if appropriate, by this committee and eventually by the full Senate,” Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho.) told Kerry during the Senate “Can you give us your view on matters regarding executive agreements?”

“I don't want to be commenting in some prophylactic way one side or the other without the specific situation in front of me,” answered Kerry.

“I'll say this to all of you: There's no better way to guarantee that whatever concerns you have about the president's desire to move on an executive agreement would be greatly nullified or mollified if we could find the way to cooperate on a treaty or on the broader issues that face the nation. But, you know, I think there's a lot of frustration out there that some of the automatic ideological restraint here that prevents the majority from being able to express their voice has restrained people and pushed people in a way where they've got to consider some other ways of getting things done.”

– Jeremy Herb contributed