On Wednesday afternoon, President Joe Biden is set to host a soiree of sorts, “thanking chief of staff Ron Klain for his tireless work” and “officially welcom[ing] Jeff Zients back to the White House in this role.”
The chief of staff handover from Klain to Zients, who mostly recent served as the administration’s COVID czar, has long been anticipated. Chiefs of staff rarely last more than two years and the rumor mill (and reports) have placed Zients as the front-runner for nearly a year.
The long lead-up, however, has not assuaged progressive Democrats’ wariness about the change, which is set to take place after Biden delivers the State of the Union address next week.
Many on the left viewed Klain as their gateway to influence in the administration and as key to the emphasis Biden has placed on antitrust, climate change and skepticism toward Wall Street. Zients, a former management consultant who made his name as Mr. Fix-It in Democratic circles by repairing the HealthCare.gov disaster under President Barack Obama, does not have the same track record of working with progressives, and his past as a private equity CEO worries them.
“Democrats did better in 2022 because President Biden was not afraid to fight for American families,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told HuffPost. “He needs a team around him that supports him in keeping up that push.”
Warren said Klain did a “terrific job,” but she avoided directly praising Zients. “Jeff is the president’s pick,” Warren said. “Jeff will help the president in every way he can.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), by comparison, said he had bonded with Zients over their shared past working for the Bain & Co. consulting group.
“I have a great deal of respect for his mind and his capacity, and hopefully he’ll do a fine job,” Romney said.
At the same time, most of Washington’s leading progressives (and frankly, its leading moderate Democrats) do not expect a significant ideological shift from the administration.
“This isn’t like when Bill Clinton hired Dick Morris,” one progressive told HuffPost, referencing the political operative who directed the then president’s “triangulation” strategy as he ran for reelection in 1996.
What has troubled progressives the most about Zients’ ascension is that they did not even have a horse in the race. Although some on the left had hoped Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, a former Boston mayor with close ties to unions, could make a late charge for the position, many of the leading contenders — Zients, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell — firmly belonged to the party’s business-friendly centrist wing.
The lack of alternative candidates has meant progressives can do little more than gnash their teeth as Zients prepares to take over the top gig.
For a wing of the party obsessed with the idea that “personnel is policy” and known to boast of its success in stacking the administration with progressive thinkers, its lack of a role in choosing the president’s chief of staff is telling. The failure indicates that the progressive movement may need to build more infrastructure to support like-minded staffers and operatives and get them ready for top-tier administration jobs.
“There needs to be a lot more focus within the progressive movement on developing the people who can step into these roles,” said Max Berger, a former staffer for Warren’s presidential campaign and the Justice Democrats group. “Part of that has to be developing the places where people can work in between administrations to gain experience and develop a career path. There is no equivalent to the Center for American Progress or Heritage [Foundation] on the left,” he added, referring to the liberal and conservative think tanks.
The strange thing? Progressives may look back and find Zients played a role in building a major talent pipeline. He co-chaired Biden’s presidential transition, helping put in place many of the progressives now scattered throughout the administration. Heather Boushey, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers and a dyed-in-the-wool economic progressive, wrote on Twitter that it was Zients who recruited her to the job.
“His leadership in the Transition set the scene for so many now working to deliver on ... [President Biden’s] vision to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out,” Boushey tweeted Friday.
Roosevelt Institute CEO Felicia Wong, who served on the advisory board for the transition, said it was clear then that Zients valued input from across the party’s ideological spectrum.
“I am confident that Jeff will continue the practice that Klain started of reaching out to all parts of the Democratic coalition, including progressives,” Wong said. “Based on his track record as someone who cares a lot about execution and attention to detail, I think he’s the right person to lead the White House in delivering on the promise of economic transformation the administration has been building toward.”
Wong and others noted that it may simply be a matter of time and experience: Progressive allies like Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Rohit Chopra, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo and National Economic Council Deputy Director Bharat Ramamurti could be ready to fill high-ranking jobs in a second Biden term or the next Democratic administration. (In the short-term, progressives are rooting for Ramamurti to replace his boss, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, when the latter leaves the administration.)
Still, other progressives insisted talent pipelines weren’t a major issue, instead pointing to the difficulty of getting a progressive candidate into Biden’s relatively small inner circle. (One progressive lamented that 82-year-old former Sen. Ted Kaufman, a Delaware Democrat who co-chaired the transition with Zients and served as Biden’s senatorial chief of staff for years, wasn’t a couple of decades younger, as he is a a favorite of the left.)
If Zients, who earned a reputation as a business-friendly deficit hawk during the Obama administration, does end up clashing with progressives, he would not be the first chief of staff to do battle with a rising ideological faction within their own party.
Movement conservatives famously loathed and mistrusted James Baker III, the establishment Washington hand President Ronald Reagan selected as his first chief of staff. Then, movement conservatives still found influence in the administration, because they were simply too powerful to ignore.
“The conservative movement, at a certain point, made it so you had to care about what they had to say if you were a Republican,” Berger said as he assessed progressives’ growing power. “I’d like to think that we’re getting to a similar point. No one who is running a Democratic White House can afford to ignore the left without it being a massive pain in the ass.”
Of course, movement conservatives then had an advantage that progressives do not have now: Reagan himself was a movement conservative. This fact led a Biden ally to make a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for how progressives could get more of their own in top jobs.
“Maybe they should try being more electorally successful,” they joked.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.