Biden is getting a new chief of staff. Jeff Zients will replace Ron Klain
Updated January 22, 2023 at 4:29 PM ET
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, but ahead of two years of looming investigations from Congress and a special counsel.
The news of the shift came on a weekend rocked by the extraordinary revelation that the FBI had spent more than 12 hours going through Biden's personal belongings in his Wilmington, Del. home, finding more classified documents.
A special counsel probe into the classified documents found in Biden's personal files — some from his years as vice president, others dating back to his time as a senator — is one of the immediate challenges that will face the White House as Zients takes over.
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
Biden's pick of Zients, first reported by The Washington Post, was confirmed by two sources familiar with the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity because the White House has not yet commented on the upcoming departure of Klain. The exact date for the transition is not clear.
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.
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.
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."
Klain helped Biden notch his big legislative wins
Zients will be charged with making sure the White House implements several sprawling pieces of legislation — the pieces of Biden's agenda that Klain, a powerful, behind-the-scenes manager, helped usher through Congress.
Klain worked closely with Democrats to get sweeping spending bills for COVID aid, infrastructure, semiconductor manufacturing and climate incentives through Congress — and helped the party defy the odds and maintain control of the Senate in the midterm elections.
His victories came despite the president's own stubbornly low approval ratings. Klain's leadership was sometimes second-guessed, particularly after the tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and amid persistently high inflation.
Klain advised Biden on his strategy for the midterms
Author Chris 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 UN 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.
Zients is seen as less political than Klain
Klain is a prolific user of Twitter, describing the platform as his "hobby." David Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron who studies chiefs of staff, said Klain uses Twitter to defend and promote his boss.
"One of the roles of a chief of staff, is to essentially catch the javelins that are thrown the president's way," said Cohen. "And that's one thing that Ron Klain uses Twitter for."
Klain is widely respected in Democratic circles, but often reviled on the right, with some Republicans referring to him as "Prime Minister Klain" — suggesting he was the unelected powerful puppet master pulling the strings behind Biden.
He was also known to run a tight ship with limited leaks. He was more prepared for the job than most, having worked under nine former chiefs of staff, and having served as the chief of staff to two vice presidents: Al Gore from 1995-1999 and Biden himself from 2009-2011.
He had worked for Biden on and off for decades, starting his political career as an intern in Biden's Senate office.
Zients, who has strong relationships in the business community, does not tweet. During his time as the COVID response coordinator, he presided over heavily scripted updates on Zoom to outline how the administration was making progress on its vaccination goals.
Zients has close ties to Biden and his inner circle, but is viewed as someone who will leave the political part of the job to other long-time Biden advisers — including Klain, who is expected to remain involved from outside the White House.
NPR's Rob Stein contributed to this story.
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