Now, as Obama's deputy national security adviser and chief of staff of the National Security Council, McDonough is working to strengthen international bonds strained by the Bush administration's go-it-alone approach to foreign policy.
Traveling by the president's side on overseas missions, the 40-year-old Minnesotan is a crucial player in Obama's quest to engage Muslims, find common cause with the Vatican, and restore the country's moral authority.
McDonough helped craft Obama's landmark address to Muslims last June in Cairo, and the robust defense of American foreign policy—including the waging of "just wars"—during the president's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Norway.
A key component of Obama's foreign policy is the Catholic concept of the common good, McDonough said. "It's a general posture of seeking engagement to find mutual interests, but also realizes that there is real evil in the world that we must confront," he said in an interview at his West Wing office. "The president also recognizes that we are strongest when we work together with our allies."
In addition, McDonough has schooled Obama on the internal politics of the Catholic Church, an institution he knows intimately. His brother Kevin was vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, another brother is a priest-turned-theologian, and his best friend in Washington is a Redemptorist priest. A graduate of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., he helped vet a young theologian on the faculty, Miguel Diaz, to become ambassador to the Vatican last May.
As Obama pursues a "new beginning" between the U.S. and Muslims around the world, he frequently seeks the counsel of Rashad Hussain, a 31-year-old White House lawyer.
Hussain briefed Obama before his first interview as president—with Al Arabiya, a television station based in the United Arab Emirates. He has also contributed to Obama's two major speeches to Muslims—in Ankara, Turkey and Cairo—offering insights about the history of Islam in America and suggesting suitable verses from the Quran.
Hussain has also traveled to the Middle East with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and, closer to home, helped organize a Ramadan dinner at the White House that replaced the usual crowd of ambassadors with young American Muslims.
In naming Hussain as his envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Obama noted that the young Muslim is a hafiz (someone who has memorized the Quran). But Hussain and others said Muslims abroad are more likely to take note of his White House credentials, and access to the Oval Office, as he seeks partnerships in education, health, science and technology.
"For many years, Muslim communities have been viewed almost exclusively through the lens of violent extremism," Hussain said in an interview. "We do not feel that we should engage one-quarter of the world's population based on the erroneous beliefs of a fringe few."
When the Obama administration decided that Bush's faith-based office was on shaky legal ground, it sent Melissa Rogers to firm up the foundation.
For the last year, the 43-year-old church-state expert has chaired Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
DuBois called Rogers, the director of the Center for Religious and Public Affairs at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, "one of the country's foremost experts on faith and public policy," who is "respected across the board," by liberals and conservatives alike.