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Ron Klain, White House chief of staff, plans to step down

Top Biden aide has not set a date for his departure, colleagues say, but it’s expected in the coming weeks

Ron Klain, President Biden's chief of staff, plans to step down. He first worked with the president on Biden's 1987 presidential campaign. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
8 min

Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, plans to step down in the coming weeks after playing a central role in steering the administration through its first two years, according to two people familiar with his plans, depriving the president of his top adviser as he enters a challenging new phase of his presidency.

During his tenure, Klain helped Biden navigate a closely divided Washington, a polarized country and a predecessor who falsely insisted he was the election’s rightful winner. The experienced insider was key to Biden’s success in winning a string of legislative victories, but he also oversaw the sometimes-rocky effort to defeat the covid-19 pandemic and a drop in the president’s popularity ratings.

Klain’s successor, who is likely to be named imminently, could face even bigger challenges. Klain would become the first member of the president’s inner circle to leave the White House, and his exit would come just as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives — determined to investigate the president and block his agenda — and as Biden is expected to launch his reelection campaign.

Klain, whose plans were first reported by the New York Times, has not set an official exit date for leaving. He has told colleagues he will stay on through the State of the Union address on Feb. 7 and will assist with the transition to his successor, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Ron Klain and the challenges of today's Washington

Among the top candidates to succeed Klain are Jeff Zients, who coordinated the administration’s coronavirus response; Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the president; and Steve Ricchetti, who was Biden’s chief of staff as vice president and now serves as a counselor to Biden. Other potential candidates include Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, and Susan Rice, the president’s chief domestic policy adviser.

Neither Klain nor the White House responded to a request for comment.

Chris Whipple, who wrote a book about White House chiefs of staff, said Klain ranks among “the best chiefs in recent history,” putting him in the same category as James Baker, one of Ronald Reagan’s chiefs of staff, and Leon Panetta, who held the job under Bill Clinton.

Whipple said Biden has faced some tough stretches during Klain’s tenure. “I think, look, he’s not perfect,” he said of Klain. “He had the Afghanistan withdrawal, and the premature celebration of being past covid on July 4, and that long, sort of ugly sausage-making with Build Back Better. But since then, he’s really been extraordinarily effective.”

In the modern era, with so much power centralized in the White House, the president’s successes and failures are often associated with his chief of staff, and Whipple said Biden has accomplished a good deal in a difficult environment.

“At the two year mark, he’s got a legislative record that compares with LBJ,” he said. “He’s faced down Putin over Ukraine, he’s headed in the right direction on the economy and Klain deserves a lot of credit for all of the above.”

Klain, 61, became the White House chief of staff after serving in the same role for Biden at the start of his vice presidency and holding other senior positions in the Barack Obama and Clinton administrations, including as chief of staff for Vice President Al Gore and Attorney General Janet Reno. Biden never seriously considered other candidates, and he used Klain’s selection to send an emphatic early message that Washington would be returning to a reliance on experience and order after the unorthodoxy and chaos of the Donald Trump years.

Biden's selection of Klain signals rejection of Trump-era chaos

In the Biden White House, Klain rose to become one of the most powerful chiefs of staff in decades, known for a fierce work ethic and for sending a constant stream of tweets, a habit that did not always endear him to fellow Democrats.

Klain’s departure comes after Biden and the Democrats turned in a better-than-expected midterm outcome and delivered a flurry of legislative victories, including a wide-ranging social spending bill, a massive investment in the domestic semiconductor industry and gun control legislation. But his resignation will also come as a special counsel begins investigating the handling of classified documents found at Biden’s home in Wilmington and his private office in Washington, potentially casting a shadow over the opening months of the presidency’s next phase.

Bill Daley, who was served as chief of staff to Obama, said Klain has had “one of the most successful tenures of a chief of staff in a very long time.”

“Considering the hand he was dealt when he came in, it was an incredibly successful two years,” Daley said, listing Trump’s rejection of the 2020 election result, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the covid pandemic and Democrats’ narrow control of Congress as some of the most significant hurdles.

“He’s played at the senior level in politics and government for the last 30 years,” Daley added. “There was no learning curve for Ron Klain — none.”

Among close Biden advisers, Klain was always seen as the obvious choice for Biden’s first chief of staff. As Biden closed in on the 2020 Democratic nomination, his aides laid out a careful process for choosing and vetting candidates for the job. Biden cut them short, saying, “I want Ron.”

Among Klain’s assets was his long-standing personal relationship with the president: He first worked for Biden on the then-senator’s 1987 presidential run. He also graduated that year from Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude and was an editor on the Harvard Law Review, and he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White.

If nothing else, Klain, who loves to swill Tab soda — though Diet Coke often replaced Tab after it was discontinued by Coca-Cola — throughout the workday, is credited by many with quickly restoring order to a government that had been engulfed in chaos and recrimination. Given the confusion left by the Trump presidency — abrupt firings, discarding of norms, abandonment of longtime procedures — his supporters say simply reestablishing traditional practices was an accomplishment.

An example of the Klain’s focus — or obsessiveness, depending on the viewpoint — was his concentration on gas prices. At least for a time, Klain awoke almost every morning around 3:30 to check the average national gas price as measured by AAA, then monitored the posted prices as he passed nine gas stations on his morning drive to the White House. If the news was good, he would sometimes tweet about gas prices multiple times in a single day.

Klain at the center of controversy over Biden budget pick

Among Klain’s central challenges under Biden has been navigating the pitched battles between Democratic centrists and progressives, at a time when Democrats held only a bare majority in Congress. Klain was sometimes blamed for such missteps as angering Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), an influential centrist, or empowering Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader.

Still, under his guidance, Biden mounted an unexpectedly successful legislative push, enacting laws on covid relief, gun control, the semiconductor industry, infrastructure spending, climate change and health care, among other areas.

As challenging as the past two years have been for the Biden presidency, the next phase may be even trickier. The incoming House Republicans have already begun a barrage of investigations aimed at the White House, scrutinizing everything from the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter to the recently discovered classified documents.

At the same time, Biden is likely to be running a reelection campaign that will require facing questions about his age (Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term) as well as fierce attacks from Republicans. And Klain may not be the last senior adviser to depart.

Klain has often noted to colleagues that Clinton and Obama’s first-term chiefs of staff — Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty and Rahm Emanuel, respectively — did not make it to the two-year mark, an achievement he was hoping to notch. But Klain also seemingly worked nonstop, with staffers regularly receiving emails before the sun rose, and colleagues wondered how long he could keep up the pace.

“It is a grinding job, there’s no question about it,” Klain told The Washington Post in an interview several months ago. “It takes a lot of stamina to do it. So we’ll see how long it lasts.”

Whipple, who just published “The Fight of His Life,” a book about Biden’s presidency, said Klain’s résumé will be hard to match for his successor.

“It’s a real challenge for Biden to find somebody with Klain’s unique skill set, because he had all the skills — political savvy, White House experience, knowledge of Capitol Hill, temperament, relationship with the president,” Whipple said. “How do you duplicate this? It’s not easy.”