Biden is getting a new chief of staff. Jeff Zients will replace Ron Klain
President Biden has selected Jeff Zients as his next chief of staff, choosing his former COVID-19 response coordinator to take over from Ron Klain, who is preparing to leave the White House sometime after the State of Union address on Feb. 7.
The transition comes after two years where the administration notched some significant legislative wins. Biden has said implementing the sweeping spending on infrastructure, semiconductor manufacturing and climate is one of his biggest tasks for the year ahead — and Biden said Zients was the right person to lead that push.
"When I ran for office, I promised to make government work for the American people. That's what Jeff does," Biden said in a statement.
Zients also joins ahead of two years of looming investigations from Congress — and a special counsel probe into classified documents found in Biden's personal files — some from his years as vice president, others dating back to his time as a senator.
The White House has been criticized for its uneven public disclosure in the matter, even as Biden has been defiant that he has "no regrets" about how the issue has been handled.
Zients will manage the White House as Biden weighs whether to make good on his intention to seek a second term in office, and as the White House prepares to face a series of congressional investigations on issues ranging from the business dealings and personal problems of Biden's son Hunter, to the migrant crisis at the southern U.S. border.
Zients also helped the Obama White House manage a crisis
Zients, an early hire on Biden's transition team, developed the strategy unveiled on Inauguration Day to get Americans vaccinated for COVID-19. He led the response until April 2022, and has close ties to Biden's other top advisers and cabinet members.
Zients told author Chris Whipple for his new book The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden's White House that being able to deliver on plans is key. "A lot of time, energy and creativity go into making policy, whether that's legislation or executive action," Zients said in the book. "But sometimes in government, not enough time and energy and creativity go into execution."
Ted Kaufman, a Biden confidante and friend who helped manage his transition, told NPR that Zients is "one of the best managers that I've ever seen" and said that is key for Biden at this juncture.
"One of the biggest issues if he runs for president, it will be: is the government functioning?" Kaufman said.
A management consultant before he entered public service during the Obama administration, Zients was the acting head of the Office Management and Budget when he was pulled in to the push to fix the healthcare.gov website in 2013.
Cecilia Muñoz worked with Zients in the Obama White House. She said his temperament and work ethic will help him as chief.
"It's a ferociously difficult job, but he is maybe the most even-keeled person I know. And part of the magic is that there's just no ego investment. He's really all about what he's trying to get done," Muñoz said.
Klain is prolific on Twitter. Zients is not
Klain is a prolific user of Twitter, describing the platform as his "hobby." Zients, who has strong relationships in the business community, does not tweet.
Zients has run an investment fund and served on Facebook's board of directors. His time in the private sector raised red flags for Jeff Hauser, who heads the Revolving Door Project, who wants the White House to take the lead in going after corporate America for abuses.
"Jeffrey Zients is not just a successful business person. He is somebody who has been involved in many of the industries that the American people are most angry about," Hauser told NPR.
But Biden, in his statement making Zients' pick official, said his new chief of staff "shares my focus on strengthening our economy to work for everyone."
Klain advised Biden on his strategy for the midterms
Biden, who has known Klain for 36 years, called him "as tough, smart, determined, and persistent as anyone I have ever met." He helped the party defy the odds and maintain control of the Senate in the midterm elections, despite the president's own stubbornly low approval ratings.
Author Whipple, who spoke with Klain for his new book, and has studied White House chiefs of staff, said Klain stands out as one of the most successful chiefs in recent history.
"His greatest asset is his relationship with Joe Biden," said Whipple. "You have to be able to work closely with the president. You have to be able to manage him. You can't really be too close to him. You can't be a friend because you have to be able to tell him what he doesn't want to hear in a decisive moment. And that's a very fine balancing act. And I think Ron Klain has been able to do it."
One of those moments came ahead of the 2021 midterm elections, when Biden wanted to "go everywhere and talk about everything, essentially," to try to help his party win, Whipple said. Instead, Klain and Biden's political team convinced the president to focus on a narrow list of states and two main issues: reproductive rights, and the threat posed to democracy by 'MAGA Republicans.'
Klain felt vindicated by the election results, Whipple said, describing an email he received from the chief of staff at 1:16 a.m. after it was clear Democrats did far better than expected. "Maybe we don't suck as much as people thought," Klain said in that email.
There was a point where Klain almost quit
The job of chief of staff is all-consuming. "There's a reason why the average tenure of a White House chief is 18 months," Whipple said.
In October 2021, a low point in Biden's presidency when it seemed that his push for his 'Build Back Better' agenda had failed, Klain wanted to quit, Whipple said. Biden was on his way to the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, empty-handed, when Whipple visited Klain at the White House.
"Ron said to me at that point that he was exhausted and he was thinking about leaving," Whipple said. "That's how relentless and grueling and exhausting that job can be."
But Klain's wife Monica Medina — a high-ranking State Department official who works on climate and environment portfolios — convinced him to stay on, Whipple said. He said Klain concluded he needed to see Biden through the midterms.
NPR's Rob Stein contributed to this story.