Acting OMB Director Jeffrey Zients Testifies On President's FY2014 Budget

Who is Jeff Zients, Biden’s next chief of staff?

President Joe Biden has named Jeff Zients, a businessman and former COVID-19 response coordinator, as his new chief of staff, according to a statement issued by the White House on Friday.

Biden’s current top aide, Ron Klain, will officially depart the White House next week. The change within the president’s circle of close advisers comes as Biden’s team prepares for a reelection campaign and braces for House Republicans’ investigations into the White House and Biden’s family members.

Here’s a brief rundown of Zients’ background.

Zients has a history of assisting Democratic administrations.

Zients served the Obama administration in multiple capacities. The entrepreneur and management consultant:

  • Addressed the backlog in President Barack Obama’s “Cash for Clunkers” program in 2009. The now-halted program offered rebates for old cars so their owners could buy more fuel-efficient vehicles.
  • Led the effort to repair, the Affordable Care Act website, after the website’s botched rollout in 2013.
  • Was named the Office of Management and Budget’s first-ever “chief performance officer,” a position intended to help streamline government.
  • Also served as the deputy director and then acting director of the OMB.
  • Served on the National Economic Council for about four years.

Zients first joined Biden’s team as vice chairman of the 2020 presidential transition. Later appointed Covid-19 czar, Zients shepherded the vaccine rollout and oversaw other COVID-19 programs. However, he was also criticized for rosy predictions of a COVID-free summer in 2021 as the delta variant took hold in cities around the world, and for rapid-test shortages in December 2021 as the omicron wave swept through the United States.

Obama meets company executives in Washington

National Economic Council director Jeff Zients and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett flank President Barack Obama during a meeting with company executives and their small business suppliers on July 11, 2014. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters

Critics are focusing on Zients’ corporate background and role in COVID response.

Zients’ impending appointment, which has yet to be formally announced, was met with some scrutiny.

Jeff Hauser, founder and executive director of the progressive group Revolving Door Project, said in a statement that Zients’ private-sector background involves the sorts of corporate practices that the Biden administration ought to actively squash. Hauser flagged Zients’ two-year stint on Facebook’s board of directors and his oversight of health care companies that paid millions to settle Medicare and Medicaid fraud allegations

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Public Citizen, a left-leaning consumers’ rights advocacy group, criticized the Biden administration and Zients for failing to make vaccines more accessible for the rest of the world, specifically countries that could not afford them.

“The United States and [other] rich countries refused to share vaccine technology with developing countries and failed to deliver sufficient vaccines,” the group wrote in April 2022 when Zients left his role as COVID-19 response coordinator.

“Jeff Zients failed and the world paid the price,” the statement said.

What does a chief of staff do, and why does the role matter?

A president’s chief of staff acts as a manager of operations for the White House, ensuring that the institution works and priorities are maintained, said Peter Loge, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

“It’s not exciting, it’s operational. It’s chaotic enough as it is. [The] job is to decrease the chaos, increase the predictability, make it less dramatic. And let the president and the Cabinet and the senior staff focus on getting done what they need to get done.”

The chief of staff also acts as a “gatekeeper,” managing whom the president communicates with — and whom he doesn’t.

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“It’s easy if you’re in charge of anything to just get consumed with answering the phone call or answering every email where everybody wants to talk to you … And none of the time doing what you’ve been hired to do, which in this case is run the country,” Loge said.

Loge said Zients was chosen because of Biden’s trust in him and his background in managing large, complicated organizations. He also brings experience from the Obama administration, when the president faced a hostile Republican Congress — something Biden will now have to contend with, beginning with a possible debt-ceiling showdown.

That specific conflict “is not something that a lot of people have done before because mercifully, it’s not something that happens very often. So he goes in with a bit of experience.”

Andy Slavitt, a former senior adviser for pandemic response to Biden, told the NewsHour that Zeints “is focused on execution, the unsexy stuff of getting decisions made in government.”

Slavitt worked with Zients in both the Biden and Obama administrations, including work on fixing the Affordable Care Act website in 2013.

“There were times when we were working on the ACA fix together, when we would talk every two hours, including in the middle of the night,” said Slavitt.

“He would basically, metaphorically, climb in the foxhole with you say, ‘O.K., what do we need to do?’”

Loge believes that criticisms of Zients from groups like the Revolving Door Project miss the mark.

“His job is not to set policy or policy direction. His job is not to say who should get how much money or what laws should be implemented. His job is to make the machine work,” Loge said.

Loge noted that serving as a gatekeeper may give the chief of staff some ability to control whose viewpoints the president hears. But he also doubted that Biden would be likely to change his views much after 50 years in national politics.

“Biden knows what Biden’s gonna do, right?” Loge said. “Biden served in the U.S. Senate for a long, long time. He was vice president of the United States for eight years. He’s been president of the United States for two years. There isn’t an issue that he doesn’t have an opinion on.”

Laura Barrón-López and Geoff Bennett contributed reporting.