He is a CEO worth $150 million. Can Jeff Zients keep progressives happy and the Biden White House on track?

NIf President Joe Biden has announced that his longtime confidant Ron Klain is stepping down as White House chief of staff, it’s clear that his successor, former White House Covid response coordinator Jeff Zients, may need some papers to fill in the familiar size 24 shoe Mr. Klain will leave behind in his West Wing corner office.

In a statement, Biden hailed his outgoing top aide as a “once-in-a-generation talent” with both a “fierce and brilliant intellect” and “a big heart” to match. and described him as “uniquely qualified” for the role he is vacating because of his long record of public service dating back to when Mr Klain first came to work for him as a third-year law student.

The president also described how the Biden administration under Mr. Klain’s leadership has produced a legislative record that commentators have said resembles Democratic juggernauts like Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt, in just two years and with slim margins in the House. and the Senate.

During the first half of Biden’s term, Mr. Klain has steered the president and his team through the devastating aftermath of an attack on the Capitol that saw him take the presidential oath of office at a nearly deserted capitol surrounded by scale-proof fences and protected by armed National Guard troops, and all set in the midst of a viral pandemic that had not been seen since the middle of Woodrow Wilson’s second term.

And to top it off, Mr. Biden largely avoided the midterm election meltdown that has plagued every president who didn’t face an impeachment trial or a deadly terrorist attack in the first year of a presidency.

“Working together, we’ve made incredible strides in the fight against COVID, revived our economy, rebuilt our infrastructure, and won the confirmation of nearly 100 federal judges, including the first black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. We’ve taken great strides to tackle climate change, promote civil rights and address student debt. We have asserted America’s place in the world and, perhaps most importantly, restored faith in our democracy,” the president said. He thanked Mr. Klain, his wife Monica Medina and the couple’s three children for “their commitment to being a of [his] team in all these years”.

The record Mr. Biden’s administration compiled under Mr. Klain is impressive enough that a White House staffing expert told The independent that would make the 61-year-old Harvard Law School graduate the chief of staff equivalent of Tom Brady during his years as quarterback of the New England Patriots’ offense.

But does Klain’s Bradyesque record condemn Zients, a veteran business consultant and former director of the National Economic Council who led the Biden administration’s successful rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, to be a disappointment in the mold of Brady successor Mac Jones?

Cedric Richmond doesn’t think so.

The former Louisiana congressman served as a senior adviser to Biden and head of the White House Office of Public Engagement from January 2021 to last May, and saw Zient’s work up close as he worked to achieve Biden’s goal of vaccinating one million Americans in during the administration’s first 100 days.


In a telephone interview with The independenthe described Biden’s choice of Zients as “a good choice”.

“If you just look at the work he did on the coronavirus response, if you look at his entire career, he’s a person who gets results and who’s very focused,” he said.

His description of Mr Zients as results-oriented is in line with what others who have worked with him have said about the native of the Washington DC area, who graduated from the elite St Albans School before going to Duke University for a bachelor’s degree in political science with summa cum laude honours.

After his first job at the management consulting firm Bain & Company, he went to work as CEO of the holding company owned by David G Bradley, the National Journal owner who also founded the consulting firms Advisory Board Company and Corporate Executive Board. Zients took on senior management roles in each of the two firms, both of which had successful IPOs on US stock markets.

By the time he was 35, Zients had earned a spot on Forbes’ “40 under 40” list and had earned lucrative payouts from both stock offerings, making him worth roughly $150 million.

Unlike the man he is replacing as Mr. Biden’s top aide, Mr. Zients does not have a decades-long resume of public service. Although he did a stint as a White House intern during the Nixon administration, his first paid position in the executive branch came in 2009, when then-President Barack Obama selected him as America’s first chief performance officer and deputy director of management at White. The House’s Office for Management and Budget.

White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients speaks during a press briefing at the White House, April 13, 2021, in Washington.

(Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

He spent the next four years in that role, along with two stints as Mr. Obama’s acting budget director. But he came to greater public attention in 2013, when the president and then-White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, asked him to lead a “tech wave” intended to alleviate the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s national health insurance market, HealthCare. gov. The next year he moved over to the NEC, where he ended the Obama years as director with the additional title of assistant to the president.

When Donald Trump took over the US executive branch, Zients returned to the private sector, where he served a period on Facebook’s board and ran the investment firm Cranmere. But he moved closer to a return to public service as head of Biden’s transition team after the 2020 election, after which the president asked him to lead the White House’s Covid effort.

Richmond, a former White House senior adviser, said Zients deserves credit for saving “hundreds of thousands of lives” during the 18 months he spent as the Biden administration’s coronavirus response coordinator.

“His work to get vaccines distributed saved lives, and if you look at how he did it, he did it centered around equity … I think that speaks volumes,” he said.

Another former White House official who worked with Zients on Covid matters told former senior pandemic adviser Andy Slavitt. The independent that his former colleague is an “executive’s executive” whose abilities will be appreciated by citizens and legislators alike.

“If you’re a citizen of this country and you just saw a bunch of complex bills passed in 2022 and you want to make sure they’re implemented well and the government doesn’t waste your money, he’s your guy. If you’re a member of Congress who has constituent problems and wants to make sure they get help, he’s your guy,” he said.

Outgoing White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain

(Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

While Zients’ resume doesn’t include the long record of political operative work his predecessor boasted, Slavitt said the next White House chief of staff is “no fool” when it comes to “complex political issues.”

“It’s not that he doesn’t understand politics, but he’s going to start with the human relations,” said Slavitt, who described how he witnessed Zients’ efforts to build relationships with each of the nation’s 50 state governors during his tenure time as leader of the organization. The Covid reaction from the White House.

“I saw him build relationships with 50 governors. And while I wouldn’t say they were equally good with all governors, he was an ear available to any governor, regardless of political stripe, when it came to the pandemic, and he was very aware of the issues they were facing in their state, ” he said. “When you start out that way, you don’t cross all the chasms, but you cross a lot of them that people might not otherwise want to.”

While Slavitt said Zient’s lack of operational political experience in the mold of Klain will not be an obstacle to being effective as the Biden administration’s point man, a noted expert on White House leadership suggested that may be the source of the at least some future headaches.

Chris Whipple, the journalist and best-selling author who wrote an authoritative history of the position,The gatekeeperstold The independent that Mr Zients’ relatively light government CV may leave him with some blind spots that could hamper his performance in a role that requires a deft touch when it comes to dealing with other branches of government.

“The greats, the greats, the Jim Bakers, the Leon Panettas and the Ron Klains, have that really rare skill set, which is White House experience, knowledge of Capitol Hill and other things,” he said, adding that position requires a “deep political knowledge”.

In a recent New York Times Whipple said Zient’s lack of political experience could cause Biden to lean more heavily on other senior aides, which could have the effect of depriving his top aides of harm.

“I just think these are big shoes to fill, which is no knock on Zients, who is a management genius in every way,” he said, adding that Zients – and Mr Biden – will face a truly daunting set with challenges during a re-election campaign”.

He also suggested that Zients will face suspicion from progressives because of his extensive business background, including his time on Facebook’s board of directors and in various executive roles in the health care industry.

One such progressive, Revolving Door Project director Jeff Hauser, said in a statement that he and his colleagues are “deeply concerned that Zients will prevent the administration from exercising power fairly on behalf of an already cynical population.”

Richmond, the former Louisiana congressman, said it’s “just unfortunate” that progressives have chosen to focus “on a small part of his past where he was in private business.”

But Mr Slavitt, who worked closely with Zients during their service together and led the White House Covid response, dismissed the critics as ignorant of his former colleague’s true values.

“I know what my values ​​are, I know what Jeff’s values ​​are … and I think Jeff is very values-driven,” he said. “The way he operates in the world he’s operated in may be unknown to some, but the reality is that his agenda is going to be whatever the president’s agenda is.”

“His job is not to come in with his own agenda, his job is to carry out the president’s agenda, and he will do that. And I don’t think there’s anything I’ve ever seen in Jeff that doesn’t tell me that the things he values ​​most are equality, justice, people’s financial and other health and well-being,” he said.

Whipple, the expert on White House chiefs of staff, agreed that it is short-sighted to dismiss Zients because of his success in the business world or assume he will come to his new role with ulterior motives.

“I don’t think Jeff Zients is going to change Joe Biden’s political stripes — Joe Biden is who he is, and he’s going to keep trying to tax billionaires whether Jeff Zients is there or not,” he said.

He added that progressives shouldn’t “set their hair on fire” over the former management consultant, pointing out that many of the same critics had similar concerns about Obama’s first chief of staff.

“We heard some of this when Rahm Emanuel came in with Barack Obama, that he was going to be a Clinton triangulator and wouldn’t be liberal enough. It wasn’t true, he said.

“Rahm Emanuel didn’t make Barack Obama a conservative, and Jeff Zients isn’t going to change Joe Biden’s deeply held political beliefs,” he said. “It’s just that simple”.

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