Not that long ago, Jeffrey D. Zients was missing out on promotions, passed over for the jobs of senior trade diplomat, commerce secretary and budget director.
But fresh off the success of turning around the administration’s foundering health-care Web site, he is about to undertake another top White House priority: helping to salvage President Obama’s economic policy.
As Mr. Fix-It for HealthCare.gov, Zients demonstrated key traits that his fans say will help advance Obama’s second-term agenda when he enters the West Wing in a few weeks as the president’s top economic adviser.
At the risk of angering the health-insurance site’s contractors, he insisted that one company be put in charge. He demanded half-hour updates on major technology changes and aimed for clear lines of authority on who was responsible for what. By all accounts, the Web site is working far better.
Now, the question is whether he can replicate that success as director of Obama’s National Economic Council, where he will start in February. With progress uncertain in a divided Congress, the most likely changes will come through more muscular and better coordinated use of executive power.
“When [Obama] said go fix the Web site . . . he went in and did it. Most seasoned political people would have said, ‘Stay away,’ ” said Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state who knows Zients well. “Basically, Jeff has one key attribute which is critically important — he gets stuff done.”
Zients is key to a broad restructuring of Obama’s White House in its final three years. Former Clinton administration chief of staff John Podesta is joining to focus on climate change and executive actions. Former Obama chief legislative liaison Phil Schiliro will focus on health care. And Obama has swiftly promoted longtime Senate hand Katie Beirne Fallon as his new legislative director in a bid to improve his poor relations with Congress.
The role of Zients, a wealthy entrepreneur, will be important because of his management experience and his relationship with corporate America. On behalf of the president, he is expected to pressure companies to do more to hire long-term unemployed workers, one of the country’s most pressing economic challenges. He could also be useful in enlisting corporate support for a business tax overhaul that frees money for domestic investments as Obama has advocated.
“I think what Jeff was very good at is taking a potential opportunity and then immediately driving down into the details of what are the actions we need to take,” said Kenneth Chenault, the chief executive of American Express, who worked with Zients on a jobs advisory council in Obama’s first term.
But he has faced criticism from Republicans who say that, as Obama’s acting budget director, Zients failed to acknowledge the administration’s role in excessive federal spending.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, called Zients “a loyalist whose main contribution to the economic debate has been to mislead the public about the effects of the president’s budget plans.”
Some Democrats have also had issues with him. As a senior official in the Office of Management and Budget, Zients advocated for a wide-ranging overhaul of government agencies such as the Commerce Department. Zients’s pursuit of the overhaul helped cost him the job of U.S. trade representative, said people familiar with the matter.
“He was dismissive about Congress,” said one former congressional staffer on the Senate Finance Committee who requested anonymity to speak about internal panel discussions. “I think in his view he was a management guru: ‘I know how to make things work better — and what does Congress know about that?’ ”
A Kensington, Md., native who attended St. Albans School before heading to Duke University, Zients displayed a financial bent at an early age. His posse of middle school friends became obsessed with Strat-O-Matic, a fantasy baseball game in which participants can trade players for money. In a single week in eighth grade, Zients sold his entire team, the Kansas City Royals, for $25.
“He essentially disbanded the team from our league by selling to everybody,” recalled David Gardner, co-founder of the Motley Fool and the fantasy league’s commissioner at the time. Gardner said the unsentimental move showed Zients had simply tired of the game. “It was a smart decision,” he said.
Baseball has often proved lucrative for Zients. He reaped $30,000 from selling off his childhood collection of Topps baseball cards and helped bring major league baseball back to the District, although he narrowly missed out on the chance to co-own the Washington Nationals.
But for most of Zients’s business career, which has given him a net worth estimated at $200 million, he has been defined as a consultant and problem solver. After starting at Bain & Co. in Boston out of college, he began working with D.C. entrepreneur David Bradley in his mid-20s.
At the Advisory Board Co. and its sister organization, the Corporate Executive Board Co., Zients helped expand the firms from 100 to 1,000 employees and took both public. In his first week on the job, Zients revamped the six-person product research team by cutting its size in half and reassigning one person elsewhere.
“I’ve never seen a 25-year-old take control of a situation like that,” Bradley said. “Jeff’s force of mind is to reason your way to the exact right answer.”
While Zients and his colleagues developed their own vocabulary while working at the Advisory Board, the most salient term they coined was “coming in under,” a phrase that denoted the egoless posture they would take when negotiating with others. Behaving otherwise, Bradley said, “would be a waste of time.”
That approach jibes well with the president. “Jeff is kind of a quintessential Obama staffer,” said Alan Krueger, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
After being called in to rescue the health-care site, Zients demanded that the four teams working on the project — technical, policy, communications and operations — establish weekly goals each Sunday, assign an individual responsible for each goal and evaluate them through a color code: green for accomplished, yellow for underway and red for no progress.
He briefed the president each week along with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner. Each time major software or hardware fixes were installed, he received e-mail updates every half-hour from Optum Executive Vice President Andy Slavitt, the point person for the site’s general contractor.
Even Zients’s fans say they are not sure his efforts will ultimately succeed.
“It’s really hard to tell how much turnaround there has been,” said Josh Bolten, a White House chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration. “I know Jeff well enough to know that if anybody could bring rationality and good judgment to an obviously chaotic situation, Jeff is the guy.”
Max Stier, who has worked with Zients extensively as president of the Partnership for Public Service, said Zients understands “that policy doesn’t work if you can’t get it done. We can’t stock our government with people who only think about ideas and don’t think about execution.”