Although Zients has no federal budget-writing experience, he drafted the plans to reorganize federal agencies that were announced Friday, prepared contingency plans in anticipation of last year’s threatened government shutdowns, has unveiled plans to cut federal spending by reducing the government’s real estate portfolio and by accelerating the federal hiring process. As one of the few senior administration officials with corporate experience, Zients also has served as an occasional White House envoy to the business community.
The appointment does not require Senate confirmation. White House aides have said it is likely that Zients will serve in an acting capacity through the remainder of Obama’s first term.
In a statement, Obama said Zients “has demonstrated superb judgment” and “has been a tremendous asset to our team.”
A Washington native, Zients (whose last name rhymes with “pints”) attended the St. Albans prep school and graduated from Duke University. He briefly worked at the consulting firm Bain & Co. in Boston and later returned to Washington, where he became a close confidant of Atlantic Media owner David G. Bradley.
Zients first earned attention in the Washington area after unsuccessfully leading an investor group that sought to buy and operate the new Washington Nationals baseball team. In an interview last year, he did not rule out bidding for another professional sports team in the future.
In the same interview, Zients dwelled on how his corporate experience differed considerably from the public sector.
“In the private sector you measure a lot of things — the effectiveness of your sales force, your product, you measure your costs per unit,” he said. “But at the end of the day in the private sector, there’s one bottom line, your profitability that everything is driving towards. In the public sector we have a lot of different purposes and metrics, and there isn’t that singular bottom line that exists in the private sector.”
For now, Zients faces two significant tasks as Obama seeks reelection: to sell Congress on the budget proposals and on plans to consolidate dozens of trade- and commerce-related entities into a new department.
The budget will be released in early February and the specifics of the integration proposals won’t be determined until Congress gives the green light to move ahead, Zients said last week.
“The government we have is not the government we need,” he told reporters last week, noting that there has been no significant reorganization of federal agencies and responsibilities in about 50 years. He’s repeated the line often in describing his work to cut operational costs and streamline government management.
And what would he name the new department?
“That’s not my department,” he quipped. “I had enough trouble with my wife sorting out what to name our four children.”