WASHINGTON — When President Obama flies to New York on Monday afternoon for the U.N. General Assembly, he will dispense with the usual battery of one-on-one meetings with world leaders so he can tape an appearance on “The View” and return by midweek to the battleground state of Ohio. Left to help smooth over any ruffled feathers will be Tom Donilon.
Gray-suited, meticulous and little known to the public, Donilon is the president’s national security adviser and central figure in U.S. foreign policy, “the most important person in the mix,” according to Vice President Joe Biden. In this critical campaign season, he has also become the president’s geopolitical bodyguard, charged with keeping the world at bay for another 43 days.
Donilon is the one who wakes the president when an ambassador is killed in Libya, the one who tries to keep Israel from rupturing relations and Egypt from heading off track. Solutions to intractable problems like Iran’s nuclear program are for another day. For now, it is Donilon’s mission to manage problems and keep them from blowing up, so Obama can focus on Mitt Romney rather than Benjamin Netanyahu.
But the world has not been cooperative with the U.S. political calendar, as the tumult in Muslim countries attests. Afghan troops keep killing U.S. troops. Syria keeps massacring its people. China and Japan keep rattling sabers. Iran keeps defying the West. And the bill will come due in November when Obama will confront a daunting list of challenges that the final weeks of the presidential campaign have seemingly put on hold.
If anyone can manage it, colleagues say, it is Donilon.
“Tom can keep 10 important things in his head at once while juggling others in the air, trying to avoid any falling to the ground,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.
Jacob S. Lew, the White House chief of staff, said Donilon ensures that “we don’t end up just with all the grains of sand but we see how all the issues connect.”
Biden, whose wife, Jill, employs Donilon’s wife, Cathy Russell, as her chief of staff, said Donilon channels Obama.
“In a sense, he kind of thinks like the president,” Biden said. “Tom knows where the president wants to go. Tom knows when the president wants to go left, straight, up or down.”
A longtime political operative, Donilon has methodically reinvented himself as a maestro of international affairs, consolidating control of the national security apparatus in a corner West Wing office stacked with classified briefing books as thick as a fist. He oversaw support for the Libya war that toppled Moammar Gadhafi and the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. He made sure surge troops left Afghanistan as scheduled. He is a champion of Obama’s pivot to Asia.
Yet Donilon has not escaped controversy. Colleagues talk of clashes with the Pentagon and the State Department and flashes of temper that should have lasted 30 seconds but extended for 10 minutes. Republicans suspect him of orchestrating national security leaks to make Obama look good. And some foreign policy specialists consider him a pretender without a real vision.
“He is ferociously protective of the president’s priorities,” which is part of his job, said Kori Schake, who worked on President George W. Bush’s national security staff, “but comes down squarely on the side of the president’s political interests when they are at odds with our national interests.”
She cited the timeline imposed on the Afghanistan troop surge, a move that mollified the anti-war left but has been criticized as premature.
Donilon, 57, who has lately avoided journalists amid leak investigations and declined to be interviewed for this article, is an unlikely foreign policy maven. He grew up in Providence, R.I., studied at Catholic University, then won an internship and later a staff job in Jimmy Carter’s White House. In 1980, he wrangled convention delegates to beat Edward M. Kennedy.
After Carter’s defeat, Donilon studied law at the University of Virginia and worked on campaigns, including Biden’s 1988 presidential bid. When Bill Clinton won in 1992, a Carter-era mentor, Warren Christopher, became secretary of state and made Donilon his chief of staff.
He worked for six years as a top executive at Fannie Mae, the housing giant that after his departure was at the center of the 2008 economic crash. Donilon, who made millions, was not linked to Fannie Mae’s problems with accounting irregularities, but he was part of a management that lobbied Congress against tighter regulation.
Donilon was drawn into Obama’s orbit late in 2008 to help prepare him for his debates in the general election campaign. After the election, Rahm Emanuel, a friend from the Clinton administration who was tapped as Obama’s chief of staff, made sure he became deputy to Gen. James Jones, the new national security adviser.
Jones focused on high-profile meetings with ambassadors and foreign ministers, leaving Donilon to brief the president and run the National Security Council. Emanuel often bypassed Jones to work with Donilon.
“Tom and Rahm were making decisions,” said a former White House official. “There were times he probably felt left out,” the official said of Jones, but Donilon “never meant to make the general look bad.”
Donilon made enemies at the Pentagon during the debate over sending more troops to Afghanistan. He suspected the military of trying to manipulate the new president; the military suspected Donilon, who never served in uniform or visited Afghanistan, of substituting politics for strategy.
Donilon clashed with officials like Michele A. Flournoy, then undersecretary of defense.
“She really took a pounding from Donilon,” one colleague said.
Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary, warned that making Donilon national security adviser would be “a disaster,” according to a book by Bob Woodward.
Donilon has since visited Afghanistan, and colleagues said he forged better relations with the military.
“It’s not unusual, especially with a new administration coming in, getting a sense that the military might try to box you in on a political position, and I think Tom had what I would call kind of a questioning nature — are we really getting the real scoop?” said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who succeeded Gates. “Over time and with some of the changes that were made with regard to the military leadership, it became much more of a give and take process.”
Emanuel tried to enlist Donilon to succeed him as chief of staff, but it was Jones whom Donilon hoped to succeed. Obama, impressed with Donilon’s trains-on-time proficiency, obliged.
“It’s not something he had to learn,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-.RI., who went to high school with Donilon. “He’s been preparing for a role like this for several decades.”
Donilon righted an operation seen as dysfunctional. He is an “evangelist for process,” one aide said, calling meeting after meeting to ensure every quarter is heard. His preparations and work ethic are legendary.
“The notion of 24/7 — he gives new meaning to it,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former special envoy.
Once he was so exacting in choosing a basketball jersey for his son, recalled Tommy Vietor, his spokesman, “it was as if it was a principals meeting.”
Obama gave him grief for never taking time off and browbeat him into losing 50 pounds. But he remains a famous worrier — “the bed wetter,” some at the State Department call him.
“He has a lot to worry about,” Clinton said. “He really cares deeply about getting it right.”
Donilon has a complicated relationship with Clinton. Colleagues said he seemed to fear her and rarely takes her on, yet is insecure about her, asking before a recent trip to China whether his meetings were on par with hers.
Clinton played down tension and lavished praise — “incredibly intelligent” and “extraordinarily efficient,” she said. “I have a great relationship with him. We don’t always agree, obviously. I bring my own perspective and experience to the table. But he is truly an honest broker.”
For a model Donilon has James A. Baker III, another convention delegate wrangler turned foreign policy statesman, and he is known to resent the idea that he has not evolved over the course of his career. When an aide said half-jokingly that Washington still viewed Donilon as a political operative, he replied bitterly, “Fourteen years in foreign policy and I’m a political guy. OK, I ran the State Department but, OK, Baker complained about this, too.”
For Donilon, politics is largely in the past, even if it still intrudes.
“He has devoted an incredible amount of time and energy over two decades in making the shift from being a political person to a policy person,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy, “and that’s reflected in everything he’s been doing.”