The mystery of Denis McDonough

The mystery of Denis McDonough is very much the mystery of why President Barack Obama’s second term is going so badly. Here, for people who watch the building closely, is the underlying conundrum: The Obama White House has never worked better, on a day-to-day level. The chief of staff, for once, actually gets along with the other power brokers in the building: Michelle Obama; Valerie Jarrett; Peter Rouse — there are none of the sharp elbows and infighting that came with Rahm Emanuel’s or David Axelrod’s ill-concealed distrust of Jarrett, in particular. He is the first to learn the names of junior staffers. He sends thank you cards. “The paradox of Denis is that he’s so unfailingly courteous to people that he works with, and yet is an incredible hardass,” a former White House staffer said.

But the outcomes have never been worse.

“The White House actually runs day-to-day a lot better than it ever has,” said a second former White House staffer, who credited McDonough’s roots in the process-obsessed foreign policy world. “You have meetings, you have agendas, when you’re done with the meeting you decide who is going to do what, and then there’s accountability for it getting done.”

And yet: McDonough took over as White House chief of staff on Jan. 25, and what has followed has been a pretty terrible year.