For Joe Biden, an Irish American politician who grew up in the age of the Kennedys, family is the atomic unit of politics. Throughout his career, he has always leaned on his clan. His mother hosted coffee hours where she extolled her son during his first campaign. His sister, Valerie, has helped edit big speeches. The inner circle of advisers around Biden has been with him so long that its denizens have come to resemble family. His outgoing chief of staff, Ron Klain, first worked for Biden at the age of 28.
This week, Biden will formally announce Jeff Zients as Klain’s successor. Zients is a relative outsider in Bidenworld. Unlike Klain and the small handful of most influential White House aides, he hasn’t spent years learning Biden’s quirks and assimilating his theories of politics. He doesn’t have a rote mastery of the user’s manual for weathering Biden’s occasional bursts of anger or a second sense for when the boss won’t be budged from a deeply held position.
In most press accounts about the impending appointments, Zients’s primary bond to Biden is the time he spent as the White House COVID czar—an intense 15 months, during which they masterfully rolled out vaccines and then sometimes sputtered in their quest to vanquish the pandemic. But another experience will inform their relationship—a relationship that arguably will dictate the contours and determine the success of the last two years of Biden’s term.
In March 2020, Biden began talking with his best friend, Ted Kaufman, about building his presidency. For decades, Kaufman had served as Biden’s senatorial chief of staff. Biden would take the train with him from Delaware to Washington most weekday mornings. Biden wanted Kaufman to spend the rest of 2020 running his transition—preparing for an administration that would have to confront a pandemic, a shaky economy, and a government ravaged by its previous inhabitant. But Kaufman, then 81, was retired, and actually writing a book about retirement. He told Biden that he could oversee the transition, but that he would find a manager to actually run it.
For much of their adult lives, Kaufman spoke daily with Biden, and he kept good mental notes. He knew that Biden had almost mythical regard for a lesser-known player in the Obama administration, Jeff Zients, a management consultant and entrepreneur who had rescued the ill-designed healthcare.org website. In Biden’s view, Zients had saved the Affordable Care Act from one of the most humiliating IT disasters of all time. Because Kaufman remembered all the praise Biden heaped on Zients, he asked him to serve as the CEO of the presidential transition.
Thanks to his background in consulting, the left has always viewed Zients with suspicion. (By contrast, the left regarded Klain as an ally; Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both had an easy relationship with him.) Based on demographics, as well as his data-driven quest for efficiency, it was fair to assume that Zients’s personal beliefs aligned more closely with the Democratic Party’s moderate wing.
But the transition showed that this critique doesn’t really capture who Zients is or how he works. Zients had two primary responsibilities. One required him to hire the Cabinet and the staff for the new administration. The transition created an organization known internally as the “Factory,” for its industrial aspirations. It managed to hire a record number of appointees (more than 1,000) who were in their seats on Inauguration Day.
For Zients, who obsesses over “talent”—both scouting for it and pondering the dimensions of the term—that task was nirvana. His operation followed all the conventional dictates of a modern human-relations operation, but also aspired to hire military veterans and to recruit from the Warren-Sanders wing of the party, where Biden didn’t have deep connections. Much of the day-to-day running of the Factory was actually executed by a longtime aide to Pramilla Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
That reflected Zients’s professional provenance. Like any good consultant, he can sublimate his own predilections for the sake of his client. This quality also guided his approach to his second task. Zients needed to oversee the construction of the policy agenda for the early Biden administration—to prepare executive orders, to supply each appointee with marching orders, and to shape the substance of early legislation.
Despite the latent power inherent in such an assignment, Zients didn’t impose himself on the process. The transition distilled all of Biden’s speeches and debate performances into a canonical guide, called “The Promises Book.” The idea was that the Biden transition needed to rigorously stamp out the temptation for wonks to create their own preferred version of an agenda. Zients insisted that the transition hew to the professed desires of the candidate, never deviating without Biden’s permission.
Because the candidate is supposed to focus on campaigning, not worrying about a presidency he hasn’t won, Zients’s team imported longtime Biden aides to help explain the principal to the staff. They outlined Biden’s feelings about, say, unions, making clear that his support was entrenched, essential to how he thought of himself as a politician, not lip service.
It was always clear that Ron Klain would become Biden’s first chief of staff. But it was always widely believed that Zients hoped to someday have that job. Zients will inhabit it differently than his predecessor did. Klain, a passionate presence in meetings, has strong opinions about how to govern. Through his Twitter account, he became a primary voice of the administration. And his every like and retweet was parsed to divine the administration’s course.
Where Klain rarely hesitates to steer into an argument, Zients cuts a more genteel presence. He loves to invoke managerial maxims. (He tells staff that they should “run over the hill,” by which he means they should err on the side of overreacting and overplanning.) Guided by acute emotional intelligence, he cultivates an aura of humility. He styles himself a mere facilitator, a problem solver who prefers to keep things simple by relentlessly focusing on the few things that matter. These instincts will now be tested in the legislative wilds, in the middle of a showdown over the debt ceiling, and potentially in the shadow of a reelection campaign. At a moment when his presidency could go stale, Biden has reached beyond his family.