Feb 28, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Whiplash and relief: How Biden chief of staff Jeff Zients has changed the West Wing

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients

Jeff Zients. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

White House chief of staff Jeff Zients is nothing like his predecessor, Ron Klain — for better and for worse, current and former Biden aides say.

Why it matters: During his first year, Zients' business-like approach has brought both whiplash and relief to the West Wing.

  • Zients, a wealthy former management consultant who led the National Economic Council during the Obama administration, is a firm believer in delegating authority. The result: a White House governed more by committee and process than Klain's iron fist.
  • Some Democrats — including some in the administration — worry about having a chief of staff with little political experience heading into the re-election.

"Zients and Klain are night and day in their styles and strengths," Chris Whipple — the author of a history on chiefs of staff, and a book on Biden's first years in office — told Axios.

  • "I think both have been effective in their own way. Zients knows what he doesn't know — he's not trying to be Ron Klain or James Baker."

Zoom in: Under Zients, many aides say they feel more empowered and heardbut some also miss Klain's political antenna and ability to push through decisions quickly, even if it meant some mistakes and hurt feelings.

  • In meetings with Biden's political team, Klain almost always had a strong opinion. The intensity of his advocacy in some meetings gained a name among staffers: a "Ron bomb."

Zients tries to signal impartiality and speaks up far less.

  • "Don't just speak just for the sake of talking," Zients tells younger staffers, according to White House officials who work with him.
  • During his time in the Obama and Biden administrations, Zients has been a "quick study" of the political landscape, according to a veteran White House official.

In his office, Zients doesn't have a computer or Klain's traditional desk setup, preferring a big, oval table for staffers to gather around.

  • Klain was an exacting chief who could micromanage — even line-editing low-profile speeches and press releases, people familiar with his tenure said.
  • Zients is viewed as a less meddlesome — but still demanding — leader. Efficiency is his mantra.

Klain, who had deeper relationships in the progressive wing of the party, often pushed to publicly hit big business as part of the White House's political strategy, drawing the ire of many corporate America executives.

  • In his meetings, Zients often relays concerns from the business community.
  • Early on, he helped recruit the Commerce Department's private sector liaison — Jenny Kaplan — to the White House as a detailee to the White House Office of Public Engagement.
  • A White House official told Axios that Zients is engaging more with the business community as the administration implements the big infrastructure, climate and chips bills Biden signed in the president's first two years.

What they're saying: "Every chief of staff is different — and no matter what, their individual styles are always nitpicked. The same people who used to complain about Ron being too opaque now say Jeff has a lot of meetings," a White House official said.

  • Klain said: "I think Jeff has done a great job — we meet frequently — and I'm a big fan. ... I was political, for sure. But I was chief of staff in a midterm election year where we achieved the best result for a sitting Democratic president since FDR — so no apologies there."

Zients told Axios: "Ron Klain will go down in history as a great chief of staff — just look at the president's historic accomplishments during Ron's tenure."

  • "I keep a running list of issues I want to get Ron's take on, and I am grateful for his advice and friendship."

Between the lines: One of Zients' most significant, and internally controversial, moves was bringing in a third deputy chief of staff, Natalie Quillian.

  • Zients had Quillian — a hyper-efficient former Boston Consulting Group employee and veteran of the Obama White House — implement Biden's three big legislative packages.
  • That put Quillian in charge of teams led by senior advisers Mitch Landrieu and John Podesta, even though they didn't technically report to her. That arrangement led to some internal confusion.
  • Zients and Quillian also were the top two officials on Biden's COVID team. Other Biden officials saw Quillian as the "bad cop" to Zients' "good cop."

The intrigue: Klain had a mixed record on creating a positive office culture, current and former Biden officials said.

  • Some former staffers tell stories of extraordinary kindness. Others recall a fiery temper and dreaded all-cap emails at all times of the day.
  • Zients has prioritized office morale: He paid for a big party for hundreds of staffers last month, had happy hour meetings in his office, reopened spaces like the Navy Mess to encourage socializing, and incentivized people to come back to the office.

Reality check: The pandemic made it almost impossible for Klain to boost office culture.

  • Even when he tried, the divisions of in-office and remote workers made things more difficult.
  • Around the administration's 100-day mark, Klain sent an all-staff email inviting staffers to have some cake that he bought himself to celebrate. Many of the remote staff privately griped that they couldn't enjoy it.
  • One even asked a supervisor if they could get an Uber Eats gift card to make up for not being able to have cake.

Klain told Axios: "I consider the warm farewell I got from the team ... the best barometer of how they felt. The fact that we had few leaks and few departures is also a verdict that people felt heard and respected."

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