Jeff Zients to be named White House chief of staff

January 24, 2023

President Joe Biden is planning to name Jeff Zients—an investor and former Obama Administration official who led the current administration’s COVID-19 response—to be his next chief of staff, according to people familiar with the decision, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Ron Klain, Biden’s current chief of staffis expected to step down in the coming weeks after more than two years on the job. The Washington Post earlier reported that Zients was expected to replace him. Zients didn’t respond to requests for comment, and the White House declined to comment.

Zients helmed the White House efforts to increase distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine during the first year of Biden’s presidency—helping to cobble together a network to make the shots available nationally.

He left the administration in April 2022, saying he had no specific job plans; and, in recent months, was tapped by Klain to prepare for staff departures and help to identify potential replacements, according to people familiar with the matter. Zients also co-chaired Biden’s presidential transition team in 2020.

The president is turning to Zients as his next chief of staff because of his reputation as a manager with a history of navigating government bureaucracy, the people familiar with the matter said.

Zients is expected to bring to the job a more decentralized approach than the one favored by Klain, who was involved in nearly every aspect of day-to-day operations at the White House, some of the people familiar with the matter said.

While Zients is expected to focus on policy and governing, other longtime aides to Biden are likely to be more involved in advising the president on political matters as he faces investigations from newly empowered House Republicans and prepares to announce his reelection bid. 

In the coming year, White House officials expect to focus on implementing a slate of laws signed by the president since he took office—including measures to fix the country’s aging infrastructure, invest in renewable energy, and boost semiconductor manufacturing. Options for major legislative breakthroughs will be limited now that Republicans have taken control of the House.

Zients was a top economic adviser to President Barack Obama, serving as the director of the National Economic Council and a senior official at the Office of Management and Budget. Zients joined the board of Facebook—now part of Meta Platforms—in 2018 after leaving the Obama Administration. He was a top executive with the Cranemere Group, an investment holding company.

At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, Zients was appointed the administration’s chief performance officer—a newly created role that centered on making the government more efficient.

He later led a mission aimed at fixing, the federal website for the Affordable Care Act, when it experienced technological difficulties in 2013. He brought in private companies and technology firms to undertake a rapid review of the platform’s problems.

Zients is known as a meticulous planner. In his beginning days handling the COVID-19 response, he scheduled hour-by-hour what needed to be done to execute his pandemic plan. He and Biden spoke three to four times a week while he was overseeing the coronavirus response.

While Mr. Zients’ selection to handle the pandemic was initially criticized by some progressives who said he lacked public health experience, he earned bipartisan praise in hearings for his efforts to rapidly disseminate vaccines after a bumpy rollout during the end of the Trump administration. About 65% of the population, or more than 200 million people, were fully vaccinated by the time he announced in March 2022 that he would be leaving his position.

He also won high marks for shifting the administration from a more reactive approach to the pandemic to responding to COVID-19 as an ongoing public health issue. He pledged a wartime response to the administration’s global response to COVID-19, but some donations to poor countries fell short of targets because of low demand and limited funding.

Biden and Zients developed a relationship during the Obama Administration, and became closer when Zients was brought on as an adviser to Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.

Zients doesn’t have the kind of decades-long relationship with Biden that some of the president’s closest aides have. But those advisers—including senior White House aides Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti, and Bruce Reed—are expected to continue working closely with Biden as he prepares to announce his reelection bid in the coming month.

Research contact: @WSJ