The thing about power in Washington is that it’s so fleeting.
One day you’re firmly planted in the center of the universe, and the next you’re teaching at a college or holding forth on cable.
There’s no appointed job as influential as White House chief of staff, yet the average person probably can’t name most of the men – and they are all men – who have held the post in recent decades.
While a handful of them were well-known before taking the job, most are insiders who wield their clout behind the scenes, until they either burn out or their president gets tired of them.
The Biden White House just pulled off a seamless transition, quietly leaking word that Ron Klain is giving up the job in the coming weeks and, within 24 hours, that former Covid czar Jeff Zients would be taking his place. There wasn’t even enough time for chatter to build on behalf of one or more contenders who would like that office.
Klain is one of the better known chiefs of staff, having held that job for both Al Gore and Joe Biden when each served as vice president. He knows the Hill and the inside game, but most of all he knows how to work the press. Klain is stepping down to a spate of mostly positive stories, in part because he is unusually accessible to reporters, very quick on email and a regular television guest.
What has given Klain an even higher profile is his embrace of Twitter, where he is provocative, retweets positive stories and sometimes jabs the opposition. Biden’s tweets, by contrast, are deliberately designed to be dull.
Klain has been working backbreaking hours for three years, since the campaign, and as the weekend leak to the New York Times put it, “takes pride that he has lasted longer than any other Democratic president’s first chief of staff in more than half a century.”
White House officials were ready to quickly confirm his departure to other news outlets.
Klain, whose wife also works for the administration, is leaving at a relative high point, having helped Biden pass a raft of bipartisan legislation and survive a midterm election in which Democrats held the Senate. In a 1 a.m. email on election night to Chris Whipple, author of a forthcoming book on the Biden White House, Klain wrote: “Maybe we don’t suck as much as people thought.”
Zients, who has strong ties to Klain, could be his polar opposite. Even Washington pundits might pass him on the street without recognizing him.
A deft bureaucrat who shuns the spotlight, Zients is likely to be a low-key presence who stays off the tube. Unlike Klain, he has little political experience, but drew positive reviews as the Covid coordinator, even though outsiders give him mixed grades. An Obama administration veteran, he’s also run Biden’s transition office, done an acting stint as OMB chief and served on the National Economic Council.
His outsider status is reflected by the headline on this CNN profile: “Who Is Jeff Zients?” (This even included the pronunciation of his name, which rhymes with science.)
Zients, who had been chairman of two Beltway consulting firms, is also quite wealthy, having once been part of an investment group that unsuccessfully tried to buy the Washington Nationals.
It’s revealing that there are only bland descriptions of Zients. “He styles himself a mere facilitator, a problem solver who prefers to keep things simple by relentlessly focusing on the few things that matter,” the Atlantic says.
One source told the Hill that “he’s got a business executive’s mind. He knows how to get stuff done.”
Some chiefs of staff have been longtime pals of the president (Hamilton Jordan under Jimmy Carter, James Baker under Ronald Reagan, Mack McLarty under Bill Clinton.) Still others used the job as a springboard: Dick Cheney, Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, went on to become Pentagon chief and vice president; Rahm Emanuel held the job under Barack Obama before being elected mayor of Chicago.
Some were touched by scandal. Sherman Adams, Dwight Eisenhower’s top aide, resigned after accepting a vicuna coat and other gifts from a businessman whom he helped with federal agencies. H.R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s top aide, went to prison during Watergate. John Sununu, George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, resigned during controversies over expensive government trips that were also personal in nature.
Still others were well-known insiders (Don Regan and Howard Baker under Reagan, Leon Panetta under Clinton, John Podesta under Obama, Reince Priebus under Donald Trump).
Trump cycled through three additional chiefs of staff. Enamored of generals, he tapped John Kelly, but soon tired of his military-style discipline. Former congressman Mick Mulvaney held the job on an acting basis, while another ex-House member, Mark Meadows, was Trump’s point man in the runup to Jan. 6 and got caught up in the subsequent investigation.
Klain will remain a Biden confidant, regardless of whether he takes a job in the 2024 campaign. The chief of staff’s role will be more limited under Zients, who lacks the deep ties to the president and his inner circle.
Since Klain has had a hand in just about everything, I sensed that something was up when the stories about Biden’s mishandling of classified documents didn’t mention him even tangentially. It was like divining the existence of a black hole by the lack of gravitational pull elsewhere.
Ron Klain was, in fact, devising his exit strategy.