“Mr. Fix It” Jeff Zients—A Top Choice for President Biden’s Second Chief of Staff January 29, 2023
Let’s review the record. For over the past two years, January 20, 2021 to January 29, 2021, President Biden’s has racked up many stellar achievements. These have included a massive COVID relief bill, a strong infrastructure bill, and legislation tackling inflation, which is now decreasing. He has additionally passed the first meaningful gun violence reduction legislation in 30 years. More, of course, must be done in this area as we saw after the horrible Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, California massacres that occurred on 1/21/23 and 1/23/23. However, Biden getting any reasonable gun control bill passed in a Senate with most GOPers allied with the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a fantastic first step. By putting Ketanji Brown Jackson on the Supreme Court, Pres. Biden has fulfilled his campaign promise to put a top notch African American woman on that bench. As of August 8, 2022, the first day of the U.S. Senate’s summer break, Biden had successfully appointed 75 judges to the three main tiers of the federal judicial system, the Federal District Courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. At the same stage of his tenure, only JFK had appointed more federal judges than Biden (pewresearchcenter.org, 8/09/22). As of 1/23/2023, the U.S. Senate has confirmed 97 of Biden’s federal judges (uscourts.gov). Under Biden, more people have health insurance than ever before and more people are working than at any point in American history (whitehouse.gov/the record/). Biden signed legislation to reauthorize and strengthen the Violence against Women Act (whitehouse.gov/the record/). President Biden passed all this legislation and more with the slimmest of margins, a 50-50 divided Senate and a 51-49 Democratic v. Republican Senate since 1/03/2023. On that date, Senator/Rev. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) was sworn into the Senate for a full six-year term after he won his 12/06/2022 runoff against GOPer Herschel Walker (Atlanta News First, Darnell, 1/03/23).
Yes, President Biden must get praise for these great legislative victories. However, Biden must also get credit for appointing Ron Klain as his first chief-of-staff (COS). According to Chris Whipple, author of the 2017 book, “The Gatekeepers,” the COS is the most important appointment a U.S. President can make. According to Whipple and others knowledgeable about the U.S. Presidency, who gets appointed COS can make or break a President. The COS takes responsibility for determining just what documents the President gets to see and prevents the Chief Executive from being overwhelmed with too much trivial and irrelevant paperwork. The COS determines which people get scheduled to have meetings with the POTUS (President of the United States) and for how long during his super-busy workdays. According to Leon Panetta, a COS who served Bill Clinton, the COS must “be the person that says ‘no.’ You’ve got to be the SOB who basically tells somebody what the President can’t tell him.” The COS has to be the “one in charge who delivers a very tough message to the president.” Too often Presidents are surrounded by “yes people” who don’t tell him the truth about people and policies. If Jimmy Carter had had the very competent Jack Watson as his COS from the very beginning of his presidency, he might have been better focused and organized and might have avoided defeat by Reagan (See Whipple). Reagan realized that he needed a top COS well-versed in the ways of D.C. and picked the very capable James Baker. Don Regan, Reagan’s second COS, poorly suited for this job, nearly destroyed Reagan’s presidency by entangling him in the Iran-Contra scandal. Former Sen. Howard Baker (no relation to James Baker) pulled Reagan out of this mess. Thomas “Mack” McLarty, Clinton’s friend since kindergarten, was too nice for the job and failed to keep Clinton organized. Panetta, who became Clinton’s second COS, kept Clinton organized and is credited by many with helping him get re-elected in 1996 to a second term. When a COS has worked with the President in D.C. for many years both in Congress and the Executive Branch, a new administration starts on a good footing and the COS and POTUS can communicate seamlessly.
Ron Klain was the perfect COS for Biden. He helped Biden with speeches in his first 1988 presidential run. Klain served as the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Chief Counsel when Biden was its chair. In that post, Klain oversaw judicial nominations and the legal staff’s work on constitutional and criminal law. Klain was a law clerk to Supreme Ct. Justice Byron White. (Peppers, “Courtiers Of The Marble Palace,” 2006, Cramer, “What It Takes,” 1992). Klain worked in the Clinton campaign and the Clinton White House. Klain led the team that won confirmation of White’s successor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (wash.post.com). In 2008, Klain assisted Obama in preparing to debate McCain (Obama, “A Promised Land,” 2020). Klain then served as VP Biden’s COS until 2011 (Koffler, 11/12/08, wash.pos.com, Thomas, 1/05/11). Klain later worked as “response coordinator” or Ebola “czar.” After dealing well with Ebola, Klain served during the 2020 Biden campaign as a key adviser in handling the COVID-19 pandemic (wired.com). Biden was, therefore, very well acquainted with Klain and his many abilities.
Obviously, being COS is an extremely physical and emotionally grueling job. On 1/22/2023, it was announced that Klain, who had served Biden for two years would be stepping down as Biden’s first COS sometime after Biden gives his February 7, 2023 State of the Union address. To replace Klain, Biden named Jeffrey D. Zients (ZYE-ents) as his replacement (nytimes.com, Baker, Rogers, & Shear, 1/22/23). Let’s meet Mr. Zients.
Washington, D.C. native Jeffrey Zients (56) was raised in Kensington, Maryland. His father was a psychoanalyst (Whipple, C., “The Fight Of His Life,” 2023). Like Klain, Zients is Jewish, which gives him a connection to a key constituency in Democratic and national politics (See Whipple, Guttman, N., 2/28/13, forward.com/opinion). Zients received his political science degree from Duke University where he graduated summa cum laude in 1988 (giving.duke.edu/article/on-the-road).
After college, Zients worked in the business sector for twenty years (Whipple, “The Fight Of His Life”). Zients did management consulting for Mercer Management Consulting and Bain & Company. Zients became the operating officer of DGB Enterprises (sec.gov/Archives, 7/04/17). A multimillionaire, Zients became managing director of the investment firm, Portfolio Logic. Zients was chair of the board of directors of Children’s National Medical Center and a board member at Facebook (reuters.com, 1/23/23). Zients and his wife co-founded The Urban Alliance Foundation, a non-profit organization that partners with corporations to provide economically disadvantaged youth with year-round paid internships, adult mentors, and job training (Collins, M., usatoday.com, 1/22/23). Zients was also known for investing and being an “advisor and mentor” for D.C.’s popular Jewish deli and bagel shop, “Call Your Mother (politico.com/news, Frazier, 1/22/23).”
In his political career, Zients first worked for the Obama administration and during that time, was a member of VP Biden’s inner circle (Collins, usatoday.com, 1/22/23). Obama named Zients to the position of the United States Performance Officer and Deputy Director for Management (DDM) of the Office of Management and Budget (Calmes, J., 1/13/13, nytimes.com). He later took over twice as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Zients eventually became the director of Obama’s National Economic Council, NEC, where he worked closely with Biden (nytimes.com, Baker et al, 1/22/23, Collins, M., usadtoday.com, 1/22/23). Zients served on the board of the Biden Cancer initiative and as an adviser to Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign (Collins, usatoday.com).
During the Obama administration, Zients was best remembered for saving and helping to repair the Obamacare website after it had crashed in the fall of 2013. That crash initially prevented millions of Americans from accessing health care. Fixing the website would require a superb manager and someone who grasped cutting edge technology. Obama’s then COS Denis McDonough could think of only one person who could repair the website, Jeff Zients. Zients is a fellow who is “ego- free” with an unassuming manner. He, nevertheless, has an intense laser focus on solving problems. Zients, who had left OMB, agreed to come back and look at the crashed website. Within weeks, Zients had the Obamacare website up and running. He concluded that although “a lot of energy and time had gone into creating and making this website, too little time, energy, and creativity had gone into its execution (See Whipple, “The Fight Of His Life”).”
In the spring of 2020 when Biden started planning his presidential transition should he defeat Trump, the first person he hired was Zients. Zients received the most important assignment of all—he would become the White House coronavirus response coordinator. In this job, Zients made sure he learned from the previous blunders in the White House, especially the Obamacare website crash, not to repeat such errors in the COVID-19 fight (Whipple, “The Fight Of His Life”).
In the Biden White House, Zients became the familiar face and steady voice that updated the public on the pandemic and spoke scientific truth, unlike Demagogue Donald. Zients was credited with distributing more than 200 million vaccine shots in his first few months in office. He arranged the delivery of nearly 400 million free N95 masks. He shaved months off the development of an antiviral pill (nytimes.com Baker et al, 1/22/23). Zients led the development of a step-by-step process for tackling COVID-19. He produced a nearly 100-page National Covid -19 Preparedness Plan in the Biden administration’s first days. Zients and his team accelerated the manufacturing of vaccines. Zients’ team secured enough shots and put inoculation centers close enough to most Americans. This national vaccination campaign Zients led represented one of the largest public health mobilizations in decades. This undertaking eventually hit its goal of vaccinating more than 2/3 of adults by the summer of 2021. Although there were further outbreaks of new COVID variants, by the time Zients announced his departure in 3/2022 as COVID coordinator, the virus rate was decreasing and the economy was rebounding. By May, 2022, two hundred twenty million people had been vaccinated. Zients’ team had, with these COVID vaccines, saved more than two million American lives (Whipple, “The Fight Of His Life”). Most importantly, officials stated that Zients had built the infrastructure for an enduring response reliant on continued access to vaccines, treatments, and tests (politico.com, Cancryn, 1/22/23).
Does Zients have the skills to become as successful a COS as Ron Klain was? Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) stated, “He’s (Zients) got a lot of the same sort of skills and talent that made Ron Klain so successful.” Mark Gitenstein, a Biden confidant, also praised Zients. In Gitenstein’s words, “My experience working with him (Zients) on the transition was that he was the best manager that I’ve ever worked with. He would always take responsibility for his decision, and if he thought he made a mistake he owned up to it (nytimes.com, Baker et al).” Dr. Anthony Fauci, formerly Biden’s chief medical adviser, stated that Zients has an easy rapport with Biden. Fauci added that Zients “was adept at enacting a broad and complicated strategy with the ability to stay calm when the work grew overwhelming.” W Bush’s former COS Josh Bolten called Zients a “great choice for chief—first-rate talent, demeanor and experience (Baker et al, nytimes.com, 1/22/23).”
Some people question whether Zients has the political background that Klain has, a quality that is also needed to be a successful COS. However, several heavyweight political Biden advisers will take on any political problems Zients may face as Biden gets ready to run for re-election in 2024. These advisers include Anita Dunn, Steve Ricchetti, and Mike Donilon (See Baker et al nytimes.com, 1/22/23). Zients will make sure that Biden’s key legislative programs are efficiently executed (nytimes.com). IMHO, Biden has picked one top COS to replace Ron Klain.