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Obama's former chief of staff returns to Minn. college, says country is 'pretty deeply polarized'

Denis McDonough, left, converses with Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor at St. John’s University, on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. McDonough, a Stillwater native and St. John's alumnus, served as President Barack Obama's chief of staff. Julio Ojeda-Zapata / St. Paul Pioneer Press

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn.—One of the iconic photos of the President Barack Obama years shows the commander in chief crowding into a situation room with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others to monitor military operatives who would soon kill terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Sitting to Clinton's right is tall, salty-haired Denis McDonough, a Stillwater native who was deputy national security adviser then, and would go on to become President Obama's chief of staff.

That photo now has a place of honor in Sexton Commons, the student union at St. John's University in Collegeville where on Tuesday McDonough made a triumphant return in casual slacks, sneakers and a sweater to be quizzed on a stage about the U.S. political scene and his role in it.

McDonough, who graduated from St. John's in 1992, covered a lot of ground in his conversation with Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor at St. John's and its College of St. Benedict sibling institution.

When asked about that famous situation-room photo, McDonough took pains to diminish his role in spite of his prominence in the shot.

"I was just Forrest Gump here," he said. "I just photobombed this thing.

"Everyone else did the work,"said McDonough, referring to intelligence operatives, lawyers, diplomats, members of the military and the president himself. "I wish the rest of the country could see what I saw that day, a lot of work by a lot of people who because of the virtue of their jobs you will never know."

McDonough said he is alarmed by recent U.S. political stagnation, a crisis that began during the Obama years, and for which he takes some of the blame.

"One of our challenges at the moment is a country that is pretty deeply polarized," he said. "The challenge for many of us is to take a step back and ask what about this period is so unique that we aren't seeing the teamwork that we need."

That largely starts on Capitol Hill, he stressed.

"It's been a while since Congress has done any real lawmaking," he said. "I'm hoping we get back to some muscle memory where Congress begins writing budgets and appropriations bills ... and not doing resolutions and falling into government shutdowns."

Trump kudos

The current president has predictably come under withering criticism from people on McDonough's side of the political aisle.

But when asked what the Trump administration is doing well, McDonough said, "They are getting a lot of good kudos for the way they are reaching out to the Hill. (Trump has) had a lot of members down, and everyone who meets him says he is very engaging and very personable. They seem to be doing a good job on that, and you have to give them props on that."

Health care

McDonough said the Republicans are rushing their high-profile health care legislation, which is unfortunate.

He also questioned why the legislation is being put forth in the first place.

Obama's Affordable Care Act added tens of millions to the rolls of the insured and dramatically slowed health care costs over the past five years, he said. So why try to fix what is not broken?

In terms of the Republicans' competing legislation, which is forecast to trigger a precipitous drop in the rolls of the insured, "What is the virtue of the program other than that it is not the program President Obama put in place?" McDonough said. "That is the substantive question."

News leaks

The Trump administration has lately been beset by news leaks that have laid its inner machinations bare and given high-level staffers such press secretary Sean Spicer fits.

McDonough said he knows a little bit about that.

Initially in his job, "I was so mad about leaks and also dumb and arrogant enough to think I could find who was leaking or stop it," he said.

He said he eventually learned how to stop being, in his own words, a jerk.

"At the end of the day, the best defense against leaks is a quality process where people think they are being heard and can make their arguments," he said. "If you can make your argument at the table, you don't have to try to influence the debate otherwise."

The media

The current administration has little love for the mainstream media, but McDonough said he has great respect for the reporters who crowd the White House press briefing room every day.

"Those reporters are good, they are very, very good," he said. "Their ability to ferret out what is happening (behind closed doors) is as old as the Republic."

Maturing as a chief of staff, he said, meant recognizing that "what reporters write is just part of the game, and not only part of the game but part of our democracy, and a critical part of our democracy. As President (George W.) Bush recently said, journalists are there to hold people in power to account. That is a powerful concept."

Fake news

That phrase has been bandied about in recent months, and has a couple of distinct definitions. McDonough skirted one of those definitions: arguably legitimate news that President Donald Trump happens to dislike, and therefore calls fake.

McDonough did decry a recent plague of falsehoods being posted as if it were real news on sites like Facebook, and said Americans must train themselves to reliably spot such fakery.

"Consumers have an obligation to know whether what they're reading is true or false," McDonough said. "You should think about whether you want to put something on your Facebook feed that you would be embarrassed by."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service