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Don’t Blame the Chief of Staff for Biden’s Struggles

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When a president is unpopular, there are always news stories identifying every piece of the administration as part of the problem. In the case of Joe Biden’s White House, there have already been a bunch of (mostly content-free) stories criticizing Vice President Kamala Harris. Next up? Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who gets the treatment from the Washington Post. It’s not even a little convincing.

Klain gets it right — and shows that he understands the job — when he sums up his view of it in the Post article: “I’m happy to be the person who takes the spears when things go awry or when people are critical. That’s my job as White House chief of staff.” The public part of the job isn’t large, but it mostly consists of being willing to take as much blame and as little credit as possible.

Klain is wrong, however to say that “there’s way too much focus” on the chief of staff. It’s a critical job, and has been since Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency in the 1950s, and there are numerous instances of significant changes for a president when the job turns over. Most notably, Ronald Reagan’s presidency went off the rails when Don Regan replaced James Baker after the 1984 election, and things didn’t improve until Regan was fired in 1986 and replaced by Howard Baker. 

The chief of staff ensures that the White House staff works effectively for the president; often negotiates on the president’s behalf with members of Congress and others; oversees the executive branch departments and agencies; and generally frees up the president to focus on the biggest decisions and most important meetings and appearances.

So what’s the case against Klain?

He’s accused of empowering Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. That’s ridiculous; Jayapal and her caucus are empowered not by some decision from the White House, but by enlisting almost half of all House Democrats and aggressively pushing for their agenda.

He’s accused of not firing anyone, and the White House staff has indeed been stable in Biden’s first year in office. That’s a virtue, not a problem, and it speaks to Klain’s skill at hiring the staff in the first place. There are presumably some duds on any staff, but firing someone for the sake of showing toughness or grit or whatever it’s supposed to show seems counterproductive.

He’s accused of spending too much time on Twitter. Nonsense. Yes, it’s possible to mistake chatter on that social media site for mass public opinion, but Klain says he’s using it for a sensible reason: as an “early warning system” for what political elites are saying, which is something that the White House very much needs to know. Presidents and other high-ranking officials absolutely should monitor the mass media. They should not, as former President Donald Trump seemed to do, turn to cable news as their main source of information. A carefully constructed Twitter feed will supply a better cross-section of media, interest group, and party chatter than inviting selected people to the White House for drinks or however people did these things 40 or 50 years ago.

Each charge in the Post’s indictment surely would be interpreted as a strength if Biden was currently popular.

The two criticisms in the Post’s story that deserve to be taken seriously involve reports of tension between Klain and Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who has been the party’s powerful holdout against key Biden legislative initiatives, and between Klain and pandemic czar Jeff Zients. Neither, however, appears to be all that big a deal, and the Manchin story may well be an example of a chief of staff getting blamed for what’s actually just substantive conflict, in this case between virtually the entire Democratic Party and one moderate senator. It’s certainly possible that Klain botched negotiations over the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” climate and spending bill. But the more likely explanation is that it’s just difficult to close the gap between the different wings of the party.

Meanwhile, there’s scant evidence of backstabbing and unfortunate leaks coming out of this White House. Nominations are happening at a decent pace and generating about as little controversy as possible. The first year has been about as scandal-free as any in the modern era. Nor, with the messy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan as the biggest exception, has implementation of policies been a large problem. (We can argue about some of the coronavirus policies, such as recent test shortages, but on the other hand the rollout of the vaccines, which seemed shaky when Biden took office, has become a non-issue for almost a year now). That’s all to Klain’s credit. If the Democrats’ policies don’t work as advertised, or turn out to be unpopular once they’re in place? I suspect Klain would step up and take the blame, but for the most part it’s elected officials and the party overall who would deserve it.

As with all such evaluations, there’s always the chance that new information will eventually emerge that changes the picture. But my guess is that whatever happens to Biden’s popularity over the next three years, most experts will conclude that Klain was a fine choice for chief of staff and did a good job.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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