Ep. 105 - Denis McDonough

Update: 2016-12-15
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Denis McDonough, the White House Chief of Staff, talks with David Axelrod about how growing up in a house with ten brothers and sisters was good preparation for life, why he thinks it would prove difficult for the next administration to undo aspects of President Obama’s domestic policies, and the greatest disappointments from his White House tenure.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the the uh the I met Denis McDonough almost ten years ago during the Barak Obama campaign when he came onboard as a foreign policy advisor to Senator Obama and he has been with him ever since first as deputy national security advisor in the first term and then as chief of staff for the last four years of the Obama presidency Dennis has been involved in all the major decisions of the administration for the last four years and now as the days wind Obama administration or sat down to talk about the journey to the the uh the the Denis McDonough my old friend thank you for being here momentous time in your life the life of a country of Iran into brother Kevin in Chicago and A and we were talking about you and he eats and he said Yeah dude is really a and I forget what the rest of the sentence was but I'm interested in that dude thing and your family which is enough for its own football team to eleven kids back in Minnesota but have to do thing happen also my second oldest brother Billy when I was born really likes the cartoon Dudley Do Right and so he called me dubbed the directness first born but that quickly turned into dude and what's interesting around here is the only people call me due to people from vinyl from Minnesota so it's a quick giveaway post because the way Minnesotans say dude but also just the fact of saying Dude was a like with eleven Lim kids mats that a handful right there it's hard to know what it was like Wow I know is what I know it's hard to know what something else was what was different about what I tell people Oh axes I think it's part of the critical training for some the jobs that we do here trying to build consensus all the time you're trying to direct people to go different places you know inevitably there's not enough to go around see got to split up or there's too much to go around seventy s to put a little bit more of a shoulder into the thing and so I tell people that I think had I not gone up the way I did find Michael sometimes our brothers and sisters but also um you know in infused in us an absolute commitment from my mom and dad that there's one thing you don't do that stern on your brothers and sisters and so that's been great training I think that was great reading for this crazy job site today needless to say perhaps you come from a Catholic family yes tell me about your mom and dad so my mom and dad are both from Boston in mind as for my aunt and my mom's from Dora and Dave met and married in Boston and my dad is working in sports his whole life for one company three M he starred in the mail room in college went to BC and may he got a promotion and they got transferred to Minnesota so sick so my bros and sisters are born in Boston and Dorchester and use them are women between those two towns and the rest of us are born in Minnesota but you know the one thing at a stray light so my mom as I asked her why we end up living where we lived in the soul it's Nicole's house at the time they just rented out the bottom of the duplex ended up buying the whole thing made into one house when I think my dad got a little bit more money but my mom's requirement for a house was that it be close the church of course a school my mom Lisa go to daily Mass every night around supper she get supper going and then she disappeared from Asin and cheek a moment of our brothers sisters that have us ready to go but so is a big part of the church is a big part of my mom and dad weren't who they raised us to be and frankly continues to be that way the Blues Brothers who are in the clergy yet so my brother Cavs home you mentioned is still a priest in St Paul my brother Billy was a priest tell about them I guess it's almost twenty years ago now and he's no longer priests but he's a theologian Professor College and Saint Paul and um you know it's funny because everyone so I get some gruff around here and watch my language this but I get some rough around here this is part of his unit to it and you go in an office even say anything you that you know that this is somebody calls me a msg or something how high a pressure on me was the other way because my mom basically here she was as the ninth of eleven shared at two clergy and she wanna watch my grandkids so she didn't get it and you gave or three yes Leonard granted of the best so you became interested in him in Spanish you follow your brothers down that road while so I went to my brother Cavs he I remember I was in seventh or maybe eighth grade when he was assigned to perish unless itis and Paul early in Guadalupe and we went there and a Spanish Mass and didn't really understand what anybody was saying to include him when he gave his homily but give homilies and I thought to myself Hey this is pretty cool and hey if he can do it I know I can do it and I might want to try to do a better mom and so that kind of intrigued me and so on throughout high school obviously I did the obligatory Spanish language classes but then in college at a couple cool experiences I work for a period on the border between semesters as a sophomore down in El Paso and Juarez which is really amusing still on your docket from Li ye still very much still in a dark and I just got more more interested in one American that was my first job on the hill then studied in school and then as my first job on the hill to the Latin America God for the Democrats before firstly I want to want to ask about that before I do though there are many ways in which people interpret the Gospel and interpret their mandate mandates under it what did you take away from it how does it confuse what you do and your commitment to the things that you've done that's a good question and I think there's three ways I think the first two are standard which is the Gospels tell you that basically the Savior was made in the image of God as our men and women are managed and when you so believe you are and thereby saw required to treat each person with the respect and the dignity that comes from that they're being so created the second is just that the attitudes you know it's it's great stuff in and hits hard to imagine a kind of a more worthwhile way to direct one's life now is to see in you that neighbor not only dignity that comes from being made an image God but to see yourself and hope that you be similar to that when someone see sees you you would treat us I respect and care and then the third is I think the Gospels as the story of somebody as a group of people and I received Jesus himself consciously trying to figure out what they're called to do and costly try to make themselves better which if you look at a one way is to say that you constantly strive for greater excellence if you look at another way you're saying that in the first and since you're on work and so that you really gotta work for your salvation and so it depends on the day but sometimes I see it the first and sometimes I see a second but in all cases it's a good way to try to remind yourself what were we doing here and look I think the person who I hear this state these kind of words from the most is the president he talks alot about it and he talks alot about people be made an image of God he talks alot about the need to treat each person with respect and listen to present yourself in the law it's funny because you know he was really what he always says he was raised in a spiritual tradition but not in religious tradition and he really an adopted his sort of faith home when he was when he was older in life in Chicago but but he is very spiritual like I say to them acts I think I've said this to him in your presence and I've said this publicly before I think this is not I or most Catholic of presidents and I mean that by capital C Catholic and what I see him what he does everyday it's not to say that he's does everything entirely consistent with Catholic teaching that's not the idea but I think in fact his view of the person in his view of our role in a few of us as adding to the common good I think is an undeniably Catholic set from Macy's and that's why I say that two more I think you and I were together a trip to Rome we went to the Vatican we met the last pope have you met this pope I haven't I really wish I really hope to one day he obviously came on a terrific visit them last September which was one of the most memorable things and I remember being there and sitting there kids and kids were really into it and I and it's I think part of part of that stems from the fact that it was the Pope but a lot of it stems from the fact that it was this somebody who really speaks to kids who really speaks to a useful and joyful practice you yes I think so I mean I hope I hear now from living up to the NASA for that use reason and he's brought a different sensibility that is very much a Jesuit kind of sensibility to this of ironic though you know I'm on the poor an ironically I was trained mostly by the Benedict and St Johns or to cause biggest monster in the world and you're right that the Holy Father does have thus demonstrating a lot of ways a great tradition the Jesuits but in so many ways I think he just he he demonstrates he's got unbelievable smile you know life is great to watch the president he joking and smiling and laughing on the stage that day and I think the joy from this that he demonstrates speech to the kind of leadership mom and practice that he that he leads the church through now and there is not some kind of church life has to be joy and he demonstrates that you know um it's interesting to me just watching the first of all I think the Pope's place in the world is such that whether you're Catholic or not what the Pope says and does has meaning because of the leadership role that he plays but observing from the outside the challenge probably to all faiths but to Catholicism is the sense of relevance it projects to the young people in them in in modern times in contemporary times and he seems to have a genius for communication this man is almost eighty maybe is by now to reach he seems like the best hope to serve renew interest in the in the church he does and I think that part of that is is that he looks so joyful as he's practicing his faith and as he's leading this great institution and and like I mean I think our leader who demonstrates that kind of joy and dance is a vacation is a powerful thing he's also spoken to some things that previous popes have not been willing to speak to homosexuality and abortion which he said was Well still a sin to the family marriage right now I think he's climate change in a very very powerful way and he a lot of ways he's speaking to two it seems to me speaking to Catholics but also to non Catholics where they are rather than where they should be dictated which is sort of the essence of connection whether you're whatever leadership position you hold you have to meet people where were they where they live of you been you mention that you went to the hill you want em to school got a master's degree at her Washington you went to the hill after you graduated and worked on on Latin American issues do you think of from the perch at your inner before you had this job as White House chief of staff you were the deputy national security advisor will talk about that little bit more of you think Latin America has gotten the attention not just from your administration but it feels as if because of all of the pressing things that are going East the challenges from Asia Latin America has has been less of a focus than it was say when I was a kid in the sixties and President Kennedy in the Alliance for Progress yes so i wanna tell you a quick story before you answer that question which is that um when I first got the job I was an intern come on that committee and guys intern for the house for Alicia's could yet go and as I was interning for dinner strap on the up coming back to work here he was leaving graduates and so I played for the job and I was also dating period of time Tom and Mary money so I need a paint job and so I got called in by Chief of Staff and he said good news bad news is I want you bad news first he says will the bad news is that we've offered the job for somebody else some was bad news or possum you can use the set was a good history as he turned it down so you can have if you want and I thought it's an unusual way to start one's career wasn't a hard pitch and nausea wasn't higher pitch but like I was falling in love with this terrific woman and I need some money down and I was intrigued by the job so I didn't bomb the look I was in some ways I see a little bit different which is that the American people exercise hse American soft power throughout Latin America every day of our lives in a way that you don't see necessarily even a lot other regions or demonic trade him on a travel to Amman of playing which books music traditions that we both influence in the region and that region influences with us food customs traditions speaks of a degree of Wellington we should without immigration the handmade people from Americans country exactly um much the way you know we don't we don't spend a lot of time and Misa situation in my own right but the relations between ISIS and Al cannot be more solid and that's based on the law to share traditions law shared interests a lot of shared goals and objectives but also shared people and I think we see ole soul and America so a policy that seeks to make sure that the government supports that doesn't stand in the way of that I think is gonna be one that advances our interests and the reach and such a way that especially as we consider things like China just by necessity needing to find natural resource is going to be a bigger global player as we go forward and making a big plant there may come in places like the Panama Canal and in South America as a look for additional resources I think if we have a set of policies set of policies and set a policy objectives that maximize the ways for the American people and our partners neighbors and one American interact invests trade travel were going to we're going to win that competition with a country like China every day and so you're right that it's it's not like the days the Alliance for Progress it's not like the days of the kind of very ideological fights about this and an Easter as communism yeah communism and what's happening in Salvador Salvador Civil War or Guatemala it it's different it's more mature and as a result this Yes partnering with the Santos government as they make there in Colombia Colombian making critical decisions about this peace plan is that plan in any way in I know they approved it so it is long now in Columbia do these things are they likely be affected by changes of ministry American administration well I'm not sure where a Trump administration is going to stand on the Columbia peace accord question I don't know where the sandy there but I do know that the deal itself was cut by the Colombians and pursuant to agreements that they've made and not reliant on at all the U S support but surely taking into consideration the historic support I think they felt the urge men to come to some they felt encouragement of it and frankly our support for Colombia including for the Colombian armed forces has been important in terms of strengthening the state and I think it would be a mistake it would be important to continue that kind of posture so you went to work ultimately with Tom Daschle did who was in the majority leader the Senate of along the way you became interested in climate change was that during that period of time it was you know what happened is our car and I got married I got the job I got some money she said she would marry me so we got married in rather than stay in check the chin check your bank account isn't too didn't we try to keep that Eileen shi but we went to I was rather it's a wash and spend our first year marriage our offices we went to Germany for your fellowship and that was where among other things we really start to look at innovative greens are very sad at the time the ska Fisher and it really was one of the more innovative parties in the German greens in Europe at the time and I couldn't help but be interested and wasn't particularly necessarily support of the greens but I was intrigued by the way they're seeking innovation in green energy and focusing on climate and so there's no doubt that that period really kicked in after me and continued with Daschle who spend a lot of time continue to stay focused on low carbon energy and innovation and jobs in that space and the Some might argue the present lot about I know you two axes when you have kids or your kids grandkids yes nerve to you I think it's great no I'm not I'm sure the judge and the greatest the greatest thing ever highly recommended I'm sure you'll get there but hopefully soon God willing this but when you have kids and you start to think about the world that they'll face yes false and they're going to go back to question the water scarcity on the kind of tumultuous weather patterns that are becoming prevalent mom those plaid you can't help but want do everything we can right now because you don't wanna go look look in the eyes your kids and grandkids and twenty thirty forty years and have amassed to do given the code to stop this I am it's funny you should say that this has on the show the day of one of the president's State of the Union speeches few years ago and I was asked why use emphasizing climate change because this asana is my buddy Joe Scarborough asked her what YC emphasizing this because it's number six only this number six on the list of concerns in the Wall Street Journal NBC poll and I thought to myself judge just had this beautiful granddaughter who God willing will be live at the end of the century and I'm thinking am I supposed to say were from the grave if the planet is completely degraded scientists suggest it will be if we don't act am I supposed to say what we would have done something but the NBC Wall Street Journal poll wasn't good enough that seems like a pretty flimsy answer but my question to you on this is of this you know I'm watching with interest and I'm not trying to draw you into a debate with the next administration but a lot of the appointees that we've seen so far both in the transition and some of those talked about for jobs in the government are not what you would call climate change campaigners in fact his transition person on the EPA is is a very prominent climate change than I or how much how much can be undone of what the president has done the Paris accord obviously there are regulations through the EPA fuel efficiency standards and so on how how jeopardized our aggressive actions on climate change by change by a change of administration here well so I think um it's a couple things about this one is depending on who to set aside the personal question for second because as the president said I think in his press conference down in Peru ten days ago or so acts when you sit in that office and you know this reality and demands of weight creeping up on and that requires some very hard science based reality based decision making and I have every confidence that that will continue be the case when Oregon here respective of um you know of you said you bring into the office I think you've got to take a look when when the stakes are size area take a look at every available option so you are men of faith yes and I wait before you go on let me just I got engrossed in this conversation and I have to do little bit of business is going to take a short break for word from our sponsor please rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty back with Denis McDonough and I should note that we were recording in the Old Executive Office Building across the street from the White House and if you hear some noise in the background it's it is progress progress being made next door or else an early holiday party one eye back to climate change affect the climate thus the second thing I'd say is I think for the last several years in particular some of our critics have been making what I would consider in a historic criticism on a factual criticism criticism the president when he would exercise Authority's executive authorities that every president as far back as I've read com has used to make policy in this cover in this country and what they did is they overstated the extent to which the president use that authority or the difference is that the president of the different ways to present use it as compared to other presidents and so doing have convinced themselves that it's just a stroke of the pan back and then also they hope I think be very easily or a stand on when in fact the things that we did a Power Clean Power Plan for example are all subject rule making public notice and comment to considerable litigation from and some of them has been held up some of it has banned um you know and also unusual has been winning hands for them at the moment anyway and so can be easily Noah can't factor has to happen now is it to pull it back have to go through all the same intensive steps also subject to litigation as to whether they can take off the kinds of common sense regulations and rules that we put in place third point I make on this which is the market has a say and I don't want to sound like a Republican here to explain Republican the chief of staff of the Inn for the entire country the But there's been an overwhelming turn toward its electricity generation through natural gas use because of the revolution in natural gas production here in this country and the coincident significant drop in cost
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Ep. 105 - Denis McDonough

The Axe Files with David Axelrod