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Politics

Biden Picks Former Obama Chief of Staff McDonough for VA

December 10, 2020

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden is nominating Denis McDonough, who was President Barack 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. 

Biden is continuing to stockpile his incoming administration with prominent members of the Obama's team, and McDonough is the latest choice, according to a person familiar with the selection. This person was not authorized to discuss the nomination before the formal announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Biden was expected to make the official announcement Friday, 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. 

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-Qaida 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. 

Biden is balancing numerous priorities as he fills out his Cabinet, including making good on his pledge to have a diverse group of top advisers. That's created some tensions over top jobs, including agriculture secretary. 

Allies of Fudge made no secret of their desire for her to lead the department, given its oversight of food stamps and other programs meant to address food insecurity — one of her longtime priorities. Instead, Biden went with Vilsack, a longtime friend and advocate for Democrats paying more attention to rural America. 

A transition official said Vilsack and Fudge spoke Wednesday to lay the groundwork for cooperation between their two agencies on those and other initiatives.

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