When Ron Klain steps down as President Joe Biden’s White House chief of staff, his successor, former White House Covid response coordinator Jeff Zients may need some newspapers to fill out the proverbial size 24 shoes he will leave behind in his West Wing corner office.
Under Mr Klain’s leadership, the Biden administration has compiled a legislative record that commentators have said is akin to that of Democratic juggernauts such as Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt, in just two years and with razor-thin margins in the House and Senate.
Mr Biden has also seen his veteran adviser navigate his (relatively) young administration through the devastating aftermath of an attack on the Capitol that left him taking the presidential oath of office at a nearly-deserted Capitol ringed by scale-proof fencing and protected by armed National Guard troops, with all of it taking place amid a viral pandemic the likes of which had been unseen since the middle of Woodrow Wilson’s second term.
And to top it off, Mr Biden largely avoided the midterm election blowout that has plagued every president who didn’t suffer an impeachment trial or deadly terrorist attack in the first year of a presidential term.
As one expert on White House staffing put it to The Independent, the administration’s performance under Mr Klain would make the 61-year-old Harvard Law School graduate the chief of staff equivalent of Tom Brady during his years quarterbacking the New England Patriots’ offense.
But does Mr Klain’s Bradyesque record condemn Mr Zients, a veteran business consultant and former National Economic Council director who led the Biden administration’s successful rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, to being a disappointment in the mould of Brady successor Mac Jones?
Cedric Richmond doesn’t think so.
The former Louisiana congressman served as a senior adviser to Mr Biden and head of the White House Office of Public Engagement from January 2021 to May of last year, and saw Mr Zients’ work up close as he laboured to achieve Mr Biden’s goal of vaccinating a million Americans over the administration’s first 100 days.
In a phone interview with The Independent, he described Mr Biden’s choice of Mr Zients as “a great pick”.
“If you just look at the work he did on coronavirus response, if you look at his entire career, he's a person who's gets results and who's very focused,” he said.
His description of Mr Zients as results-oriented is in line with what others who’ve worked with him have said about the Washington DC-area native, who graduated from the elite St Albans School before heading to Duke University to earn a bachelor’s in political science with summa cum laude honours.
After his first job at the management consulting firm Bain & Company, he went to work as the chief operating officer for the holding company owned by David G Bradley, the National Journal owner who also founded the Advisory Board Company and Corporate Executive Board consulting firms. Mr Zients took on top executive roles at each of the two firms, both of which had successful initial public offerings on US stock markets.
By the time he was 35, Mr Zients had earned a place on the Forbes “40 under 40” list and had earned lucrative payouts from both stock offerings, making him worth roughly $150m.
Unlike the man he is replacing as Mr Biden’s top staffer, Mr Zients doesn’t boast a decades-long resume in government 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 tapped him as the first US Chief Performance Officer and Deputy Director for Management at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
He spent the next four years in that role, along with two stints as Mr Obama’s acting budget director. But he came to wider public attention in 2013, when the president and then-White House chief of staff Denis McDonough asked him to lead a “tech surge” meant to ameliorate the disastrous rollout of the national Affordable Care Act health insurance marketplace, HealthCare.gov. The next year, he moved over to the NEC, where he closed out the Obama years as director with the additional title of Assistant to the President.
When Donald Trump took over the US executive branch, Mr Zients returned to the private sector, where he served a term on Facebook’s board of directors and ran the investment firm Cranmere. But he inched closer to a return to public service as the leader of Mr Biden’s transition team following the 2020 election, after which the president asked him with leading the White House’s Covid efforts.
Mr Richmond, the former White House senior adviser, said Mr 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 getting vaccines distributed saved lives, and if you look at how he did it, he did it centred around equity … I think that speaks volumes,” he said.
Another former White House official who worked with Mr Zients on Covid matters, former Senior Pandemic Adviser Andy Slavitt, told The Independent that his former colleague is an “executive’s executive” whose abilities will be valued by citizens and legislators alike.
“If you're a citizen of this country, and you just saw passed a bunch of complex bills in 2022 and you want to make sure they get implemented well and the government doesn't waste your money, he's your guy. If you’re a congressperson who has constituent issues and wants to make sure they get helped, he’s your guy,” he said.
Although Mr Zients’ resume doesn’t include the long record of political operational work that his predecessor could boast of, Mr Slavitt said the next White House chief of staff is “nobody’s fool” when it comes to “complex political matters”.
“It's not that he doesn't understand politics, but he's gonna start with the human relationships,” said Mr Slavitt, who described how he witnessed Mr Zients’ efforts to build relationships with each of the nation’s 50 state governors during his time leading the White House Covid response.
“I watched him build relationships with 50 governors. And while I wouldn't say they were equally good with every governor, he was an ear available to any governor, regardless of political stripe, when it came to the pandemic, and was very conscious of the issues they were facing in their state,” he said. “When you start that way, you don't cross every chasm, but you cross a lot of them that people otherwise might not”.
While Mr Slavitt said Mr Zients’ lack of operational political experience in the mould of Mr Klain won’t be an impediment to being effective as the Biden administration’s point man, one noted expert on White House management suggested that it might be the source of at least some future headaches.
Chris Whipple, the journalist and bestselling author who penned an authoritative history of the position,The Gatekeepers, told The Independent that Mr Zients’ comparatively light governmental resume may leave him with some blind spots that could hamper his performance in a role that requires a deft touch when it comes to relationships with the other branches of government.
“The great, the great ones, 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 the position requires a “deep political savvy”.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Mr Whipple said Mr Zients’ lack of political experience could lead Mr Biden to lean harder on other senior aides, which could have the effect of disempowering his top aide to his detriment.
“I just think that these are big shoes to fill, which is no knock on Zients, who is a managerial genius by all accounts,” he said, adding that Mr Zients — and Mr Biden — will be “facing a really daunting set of challenges during a reelection campaign”.
He also suggested that Mr Zients will face suspicion from progressives due to his extensive business background, including his time on Facebook’s board 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 worried that Zients will prevent the administration from exercising power righteously on behalf of an already cynical populace”.
Mr Richmond, the former Louisiana congressman, said it’s “just unfortunate” that progressives have chosen to focus “on a small portion of his past where he was in private business”.
But Mr Slavitt, who worked with Mr Zients closely during their service together leading 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 unfamiliar to some, but the reality is his agenda is going to be whatever the president’s agenda is”.
“His job isn’t to come in with his own agenda, his job is to execute the President's agenda, and he'll do that. And I don't think there's anything that I've ever seen in Jeff, that doesn't tell me that the things he values the most are equality, justice, people's economic and other health and well-being,” he said.
Mr Whipple, the expert on White House chiefs of staff, agreed that it’s shortsighted to dismiss Mr 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 continue to try 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, and pointed out that many of the same detractors had similar concerns about Mr 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 Clintonesque triangulator and wasn't gonna be liberal enough. That wasn't true,” he said.
“Rahm Emanuel didn’t turn Barack Obama into a conservative, and Jeff Zients isn’t going to change Joe Biden’s deeply-held political beliefs,” he said. “It’s just that simple”.