President-elect Joe Biden is naming Denis McDonough, who was Obama’s White House chief of staff, as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a sprawling agency that has presented organizational challenges for both parties over the years.
McDonough has never served in the armed forces, a fact noted by a leading veterans organization.
With this nomination, Biden is continuing to stockpile his administration with prominent members of the Obama administration. He will make the formal announcements Dec. 11, along with his nominations of Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Katherine Tai as U.S. trade representative and Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary. Vilsack filled that same role during Obama’s two terms.
Although Biden has insisted his administration will not simply be a retread of Obama’s presidency, he is bringing back numerous familiar faces. His team has defended the moves as a nod toward experience and the need to hit the ground running in tackling the pressing issues facing the nation across multiple fronts.
Shirley Anne Warshaw, a professor at Gettysburg College who has studied the presidency and Cabinets, said following Obama as he builds out his team gives Biden an advantage.
“This is a much better bench than Obama had because these people have the experience of serving in the Obama administration,” Warshaw said. “In that way, Joe Biden is the luckiest man in the world.”
McDonough is an experienced manager who was chief of staff throughout Obama’s second term. McDonough was previously Obama’s deputy national security adviser, including during the Navy SEAL raid in 2011 that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and was a longtime congressional staffer.
McDonough was credited with helping Obama try to bridge divides on Capitol Hill, including around one of his most substantial second-term legislative achievements: the Veterans Choice Act. The legislation, for which President Donald Trump tries to take credit, gave former service members more options to seek care and the VA secretary more authority to fire underperforming staffers.
The bill came about following exposes during the Obama administration into mismanagement at some VA hospitals and mounting complaints by advocacy groups. As chief of staff, McDonough was also deeply involved in an overhaul of VA leadership after the scandals, which led to the ouster of the department’s secretary.
“We are surprised by this pick. No way to deny that,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS, or American Veterans. “We were expecting a veteran, maybe a post-9/11 veteran. Maybe a woman veteran. Or maybe a veteran who knows the VA exceptionally well. We are looking forward to hearing from President-Elect Biden on his thinking behind this nomination.”
McDonough’s wife, Kari, co-founded the nonprofit group Vets’ Community Connections, which helps veterans and their families develop stronger ties to their communities.