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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Jeff Zients will take over as chief of staff in a White House full of ‘Klainiacs’


Jeffrey Zients at a news briefing at the White House, in Washington on April 13, 2021. President Biden said on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023 that Zients, who served as the coronavirus response coordinator and a chairman of Biden’s transition, would take over as the White House chief of staff.


By KATIE ROGERS


Jeffrey D. Zients, who served as President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator and a chair of the Biden transition team, will bring a different set of skills to the job when he replaces Ron Klain as the White House chief of staff.


Biden formally announced late last week that Zients had been tapped to replace Klain, the longtime Biden adviser and skilled political operative who has served the first two years of the president’s term. In a statement, Biden said that Klain, whom the president has known for decades, would be replaced by “someone who understands what it means to lead a team and who is as focused on getting things done.”


When he leaves the White House, Klain will take with him decades of institutional knowledge about Washington politics, the inner workings of Capitol Hill and the Biden family. (Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, on Friday counted herself among the chief of staff’s “Klainiac” fans inside the administration.)


Zients, 56, by contrast, is an entrepreneur who made a fortune by building health care and education consultancies. He does not have deep relationships with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and did not nurture those contacts through years of coffee dates and phone calls in the same way as his predecessor. His interactions with Biden tend to be matter-of-fact briefings where he offers the president a list of options and sometimes calls on aides to flesh out the details.


But according to his allies, the president appreciates his eye for recruiting talent and his experience at coordinating large projects, including overseeing the largest vaccine campaign in U.S. history during the coronavirus fight.


He is taking over as the White House faces an assortment of political headwinds, including looming congressional investigations from House Republicans and a special counsel investigation surrounding Biden’s possession of classified documents. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate majority leader, said in an interview that the White House chief of staff “inevitably” has to understand the politics behind every decision made.


“While Zients isn’t as schooled in it as Ron was when he took the job, he’s a very fast and smart learner,” Schumer said. “He has an instinctive understanding of politics, even though he hasn’t practiced it as much as Klain has.”


As the White House faces a barrage of attacks from Republicans and shifts toward a probable 2024 campaign, White House officials say that Zients will rely on other senior advisers, including Anita Dunn, Steven J. Ricchetti, Mike Donilon, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and Bruce Reed, to oversee political operations. Zients will be expected to help oversee the implementation of the semiconductor industry-boosting CHIPS Act, several infrastructure projects and the most significant expansion of veterans’ health care benefits in decades.


Zients’ allies say he is known as someone who is unwilling to accept defeat in a negotiation. As the administration’s COVID-19 response coordinator, several people said that one of his biggest coups was convincing the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to sell a half-billion vaccine doses to the government to power a donation program to assist some of the world’s poorest countries.


“That was at a time when trying to acquire vaccines from major companies for countries that could not afford, or were not regular buyers, was proving very difficult,” said Gayle Smith, who partnered with Zients at the State Department to help oversee the implementation of the program. “He held his ground. He was absolutely firm,” Smith added. The government got the doses.


Officials across Washington praised Zients for bringing a business background, team-building abilities and adroit negotiating skills to the federal government. He first served in the Obama administration, twice as the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, before eventually became the national economic adviser.


Then Denis McDonough, the secretary of veterans affairs who served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff for his second term, recruited Zients to work on fixing the glitch-prone website for Obama’s health care program. McDonough said that, as chief of staff, Zients will be expected to continue acting as a Mr. Fix-It to complicated problems, but also relied on to keep pushing the White House staff to deliver after two years of grinding work and crises including a continuing pandemic and a land war in Europe.


“People are tired. They’ve done historic things,” McDonough said. And the president, he said, “needs to know that one person is accountable for the effective implementation of big priorities.”


Critics have held Zients’ corporate background and personal wealth against him, citing it as evidence that he may not be as responsive to progressive Democrats as Klain, who was seen as a touchstone for the liberal wing of the party.


“Zients’s record does not indicate similar political sophistication,” Max Moran, a researcher of the Revolving Door Project, a group fighting the influence of Wall Street and corporate America, wrote in an essay published in The American Prospect on Friday. “It primarily shows a talent for making his fellow elites like him, mostly by saying what they want to hear.”


Zients, 56, grew up in Washington, joining the wrestling team at the capital’s elite St. Albans School before graduating from Duke University in 1988. (He is still an avid weightlifter, according to McDonough.)


He worked at the consulting firm Bain in Boston, then returned to Washington to work for David G. Bradley, founder of the Advisory Board Co. The company specialized in research for the health care industry, and Zients eventually became its CEO. He has reported assets between $76 million and $419 million on 2022 financial forms, which use only ranges and are therefore imprecise.


Zients married Mary Menell, who grew up in South Africa, at a 1992 wedding where the guests included Nelson Mandela, a friend of the bride’s family. The couple now live with their four children in Washington. Zients was an original investor in a string of popular bagel shops named Call Your Mother in the city — officials in the White House are looking forward to more “Bagel Wednesday” events sponsored by Zients — and he has been known to drive around in an Aston Martin. He got his entry to high-level government after supporting Obama’s 2008 campaign.


On Friday, prominent Democrats, from the president on down, signaled that Klain would be a tough act to follow in a job that is considered one of the most difficult in Washington. Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters Friday that Klain tearfully gave remarks that morning on his departure and that several senior officials all recalled their favorite stories about him. One adviser, she said, had handed Klain a rock, a symbol of what the chief of staff had meant to them as they weathered two tough years together.


All were careful to say that Zients was not to be underestimated.


“Nobody’s Ron Klain,” said Smith, who worked with him to procure millions of vaccine doses. “But nobody’s Jeff Zients, either,” she added.


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