President Biden will name Jeff Zients to serve as his next chief of staff, turning to a management consultant who oversaw the administration’s coronavirus response to replace Ron Klain, who is expected to leave in the coming weeks, according to four people familiar with the decision.
Zients left the White House in April after steering the administration’s pandemic response and leading the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history. He returned to the White House in the fall to help Klain prepare for staff turnover after the midterms — a project that was ultimately limited in scope, as few senior staff members have left across the administration.
But, in recent weeks, Klain has assigned him different projects, which some viewed as preparing Zients for the top role, people familiar with the arrangement said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.
Klain is expected to step down in the weeks after the State of the Union on Feb. 7, in what will be the first major departure from Biden’s inner circle.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment.
Zients takes over the top job as Biden is entering a new and challenging stretch of his presidency: Republicans have already launched a barrage of investigations into the administration and the business dealings of the president’s son. Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel to investigate the handling of classified documents found at Biden’s personal office and Wilmington, Del., home. And Biden is preparing to launch his reelection bid.
Zients also comes into the job with a vastly different profile than Klain. His first government job was during the Obama administration, and he has spent most of his career in the private sector. He has only ever worked in the executive branch with limited political and campaign experience. His personal Twitter account has no posts.
But colleagues have praised Zients as a skilled manager who engenders deep loyalty from the people he oversees.
“He’s incredibly well qualified for the job, and he is someone the president has seen in action,” said former senator Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), a close confidant of the president who served as Biden’s chief of staff in the Senate. “In my experience, as a chief of staff and a manager, he’s among the best I’ve ever worked with.”
Some Democrats, though, had hoped Biden would make a historic pick for the role by choosing a woman for the job. Only men have ever served as White House chief of staff.
As Biden ramps up his political activity, Biden aides said they expect the structure of the chief of staff role to change, with Biden’s political advisers, including Anita Dunn, Jen O’Malley Dillon and Mike Donilon, taking on even more prominence in the building. Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, and Bruce Reed, one of Biden’s deputy chiefs of staff, are also expected to be deeply involved in planning the president’s political future.
Aides compared the arrangement to that of the Obama White House, when Jack Lew served as chief of staff in 2012 and focused on keeping the federal government running, while David Plouffe, a political strategist, came into the White House from 2011 to 2013 as a senior adviser to oversee the reelection campaign. Democrats say Dunn, a senior adviser who was seen as a potential replacement for Klain, and O’Malley Dillon will share the Plouffe-like role. Other contenders for the chief of staff role included Ricchetti, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Susan Rice, Biden’s top domestic policy adviser.
Zients, 56, was born in Washington and attended St. Albans School before graduating from Duke University. A successful management consultant, he ran the Advisory Board Company alongside David Bradley before taking it public and netting tens of millions of dollars. In the early 2000s, Zients formed a group to attempt to purchase the Washington Nationals, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful.
He first entered government during the Obama administration and ended up serving in multiple senior roles, including running the Office of Management and Budget and the National Economic Council. He developed a reputation as “Mr. Fix-It” for his strong operational skills, including helping to fix the troubled rollout of the Obama administration’s health-care website, healthcare.gov.
After leaving the Obama administration, Zients ran an investment firm and spent two years on the board of Facebook, experience that has drawn criticism from liberals. Zients left the Facebook board after disagreements about the company’s direction.
During Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, Zients was brought in to help with the campaign’s finances during a particularly difficult stretch. He then co-chaired Biden’s transition before leading the administration’s coronavirus response.
In leading the effort to fight the pandemic, Zients took on one of the most challenging and critical tasks for the president — overseeing the early efforts to vaccinate the American public and adapt to new and highly infectious variants.
Coronavirus vaccines had been available for only a few weeks when Biden took office and Zients helped lead an operation that ultimately saw about 70 percent of Americans get vaccinated. But the pandemic response hit numerous hurdles, including a significant swath of Americans who refused to get vaccinated despite the administration’s push.
Although Zients did not have a medical background, health officials inside and outside the government said at the time that he was an ideal fit because of his expertise in management and his ability to work across the federal bureaucracy.
“This is really good for the president and good for the country,” said Anthony S. Fauci, who served as Biden’s chief medical adviser and worked closely with Zients.
He said Zients’s experience running the pandemic response sets up him to serve as Biden’s top adviser during another challenging period.
“He’s the real deal,” Fauci said. “I mean, he’s just an extraordinary individual and talented, intellectually as sharp as you can get, an incredible, get-it-done type person.”
When Zients left the White House, Biden praised him as a “man of service and an expert manager.”
“I called on Jeff Zients to lead my Administration’s COVID-19 response because there is no one better at delivering results than Jeff,” Biden said in a statement at the time.