Obama’s Donilon Machine



Tom Donilon was sworn in as the 23rd National Security Advisor on the 8th of October last year — and though it’s a bit late in the month to pounce on the anniversary date of his ascension, I am putting together an article looking at whether America’s foreign and national security platforms have been enhanced or undermined by President Obama and his team.

But a couple of data points from Obama’s White House that jumped out at me really need to be highlighted.  A bigger piece on Donilon Inc. is in the works — but let me just toss out some data.

Since Obama has come into office and Donilon has either been National Security Adviser or Deputy National Security Advisor under Jim Jones, Donilon has called together 700 “Deputies Meetings,” and 200 “Principals Meetings.”  This is an astonishing number of gatherings of the likes of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates (recently resigned), Leon Panetta, and others.

Each meeting has paper flow — and a decision memo or a memo outlining points of consensus prepared within 24 hours of that meeting. 

Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough is the axe man who makes sure that no deputies take their tasks lightly and wander into meetings unable to “speak for their building” — something that seemed to happen too frequently during the Bush administration according to some of the memoir material in Condoleezza Rice’s recent book.  According to a White House source, McDonough enforces preparedness across the national security bureaucracy and trades responsiveness from his bosses for preparation by them. 

Tom Donilon has ‘done’ 480 morning briefings for President Obama.  One wonders if Michele gets jealous — or alternatively, what the President and Donilon do to keep spark in their relationship.

And it’s not just Donilon, but also five other horsemen — Vice President Biden, McDonough, Biden National Security Adviser Antony Blinken (who is also a deputy assistant to the President — no more rogue ops in the White House); Counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, and the Chief of Staff — previously Rahm Emanuel and now Bill Daley.  This is the very tight circle that has been meeting with the President from the star nearly every working day of his tenure.

As National Security Council chronicler David Rothkopf writes, the Donilon-crafted and run operation is disciplined both in ginning up ideas but then executing them.  Rothkopf has concerns about sustainability — but I think the machinery that the young mid-20s and early-30s types are now learning to work with will create a national security-style muscle memory that could be lasting.

More on this in a longer piece later — but I wanted to get the frequency of meetings figure out just on their own.  It’s a staggering pace. 

I asked one senior White House staffer what happens if Donilon catches a cold or gets sick or just can’t show up for some silly but real human reason — and was told that that’s not allowed.  Donilon is in fact pretty much married to the job.  His wife, Catherine Russell, runs Jill Biden land; and his brother, Michael Donilon, is domestic policy adviser to Vice President Biden.

There are rumors that Donilon could be in play to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.  Not sure why he would want to move to a less powerful job than he has now — and not sure that the President would be willing to have just anyone move in and run the machinery that Donilon has running at a precise and wicked fast pace.  McDonough probably could do it — but very few others.

More soon on what the Obama team has scored on in the national security arena as well as repeatedly belly-flopped on in coming days.

— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons


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