Soon after the November midterm election debacle President Obama convened a meeting of his key staff and told those assembled they had two years to turn things around.
“We’re in the fourth quarter,” he said referring to the time left in office of his eight-year term. “We all know what can happen in the fourth quarter.”
The staffers applauded and went back to work with a vengeance. Soon came executive action on immigration reform, then a budget deal then the opening to Cuba.
Three among those present are playing a key role in the new energized White House helping win back Obama’s reputation.
After fears when Obama became president that Irish influence would wane he will complete his term surrounded by Irish hands.
Minnesota-born Denis McDonough is described not just as Obama’s chief of staff but his best friend also. The fact that he spends up to 16 hours a day in his bosses’ company probably aids that impression.
He is a fitness fanatic who used to cycle to the White House every day until he was in a collision and his wife cried foul.
These days McDonough is leaner and meaner looking than ever, whippet like, always at Obama’s shoulder, the last person the president speaks to before his big decisions.
Most recently, when the trillion-dollar budget deal that just concluded looked like running into the sands it was McDonough who Obama dispatched to sort out Democrats uneasy with the deal.
The 6-foot-3 McDonough is known for weighing himself regularly to ensure his weight remains below 200 pounds, according to The New York Times, which likened him to “a Town & Country cover model.”
“It was well into the Good Friday process and a very hopeful time,” he said.
He was Obama’s senior foreign policy advisor during the first presidential campaign but as others dropped away as the pressures mounted in power he remained the faithful one becoming Deputy National Security advisor to the young president. But he was a lot more.
Very significantly in the totemic photo of this administration, as they watched the raid that got Bin Laden McDonough is prominent in the situation room.
More than any other figure he is Ireland’s eyes in the Obama administration, the man who finally sorted out the Ambassador to Ireland mess and he is close to Irish Ambassador Anne Andersen and has often discussed immigration reform with her.
The moves on immigration reform and Cuba have McDonough’s stamp on them. With the departure of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, McDonough and National Security Advisor Susan Rice reign supreme within the White House.
In person McDonough is intense, driven, unconcerned with small talk. He is the last person on staff to see Obama before he retires for the night, the first to greet him in the morning.
Next door to McDonough’s office during his first term was President Obama’s counter intelligence czar John Brennan, son of Irish immigrants from Roscommon and now Director of the CIA in Obama’s second term.
When the US was called out on its torture tactics against alleged Al Qaeda operatives by a Senate investigation it was Brennan, not Obama who jumped to the CIAs’ defense.
The New York Times noted that Obama implicitly trusted Brennan enough to handle the crisis and allow him to keep his distance from it.
The paper stated. “In the 67 years since the C.I.A. was founded, few presidents have had as close a bond with their intelligence chiefs as Mr. Obama has forged with Mr. Brennan”
That relates back to their first four years together when a new and untried president needed a rabbi in military and security affairs.
He found him in Brennan, the tough as teak former CIA operative who spoke fluent Arabic and worked himself to the bone ensuring no more 9/11s
“I sleep better knowing John Brennan never sleeps said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political advisor during his first term.
In his basement windowless office next to McDonough’s during that first term Brennan had complete authority to launch strikes and counter any suspected terrorist moves. Obama moved him to CIA for his second term and the torture files were the first big test that Brennan had to overcome.
His father, 94, a blacksmith from Kilteevan, County Roscommon now living in New Jersey, is still hale and hearty and accompanied his CIA son back to Roscommon for the gathering in 2013 where they were pictured raising pints of Guinness
Brennan said, “My family and I are part of the great Irish Diaspora. My father passed down to his family the strong values of family, community, love of nation and love of God.”
Brennan, 59, told relatives he’d like to retire in Ireland but that seems unlikely given his security profile.
Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN may consider settling back in Ireland too where she originally came from but that seems unlikely for some time.
The New Yorker magazine this week revealed the tragic aftermath of her departure from Ireland.
Her father Jim Power, described as a Dublin piano player, raconteur dentist and drinker. appears to have drunk himself to death when Samantha, who was incredibly close to him, departed with her mother and her mother's new beau to America.
A poignant scene in the profile has Samantha back in the bar her father drank in and the barmaid who remembered him explaining he died at just 47 “because you left.”
Family tragedy aside she has come on strong in the second Obama term. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told the New Yorker this week that Obama had begun asking, “What would Samantha think about this? Even when she’s not there he’ll want to know.”
It is a rekindling of influence that the Dublin-born Power who emigrated to the US when she was nine once had as a key advisor to Obama on foreign affairs.
A journalist who reported on the war in Bosnia, she came to then senator Obama’s notice after her Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocide “A Problem from Hell” was published and she was soon a key advisor on his team.
She lost that job after famously calling Hillary Clinton a monster during an interview with a Scottish journalist and was forced to reign (The two are still not close)
With Hillary gone however she has blossomed. Power became Ambassador to the UN and has led the fight against Ebola while other countries and the US dithered.
Her visit to Guinea to see the disease’s impact first hand was the signal for far greater US involvement.
She also visited the Central African Republic where there was little American influence at stake but succeeded in preventing a likely genocide there by just showing up.
Power cuts quite the figure at the UN with her tall commanding figure, flaming red hair and booming voice.
A UN diplomat told New Yorker he has stopped being photographed with her because “I look like a midget.”
She became the key voice on Syria, arguing from the earliest stages that the Syrian opposition should be armed. In Iraq she lobbied for the removal of the sectarian Shiite leader Maliki, which was done, and stated that ISIS needed to be confronted immediately.
When in New York Obama always stops by the suite in the Waldorf which she calls home and finds time to play with her two toddlers.
He also grills her on foreign policy issues and her advice is increasingly heeded, though some believe she has lost the argument on armed intervention in Syria.
It is easy to see Power as Secretary of State in a future Democratic administration, even one with Hillary at the head.
Her new influence is plain to see. Denis McDonough stated “There’s been more than one time when I find out that the President has taken a call from Ambassador Power or has called Ambassador Power late at night when he’s working on a speech.”
Taken together, McDonough, Brennan and Power represent a new apex of power within the Obama White House. None are free from controversy or jealous rivals but it is clear that Obama has decided to deposit his trust in them.
They are Obama’s Holy Trinity, empowered by their boss, the most powerful man in the world, to make key decisions for him. So far it has been working well.