White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain on President Biden’s economic and domestic priorities

The U.S. labor market proved to be stronger than expected last month despite the omicron surge. Employers added 467,000 jobs as the economy picked up momentum, while the Labor Department said there were nearly 700,000 more jobs created in November and December than first reported. Ron Klain, President Biden's White House chief of staff, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the president's priorities.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. labor market proved to be far stronger than expected last month, despite the Omicron surge. Employers added 467,000 jobs, as the economy picked up momentum.

    The Labor Department also said that there were a total of nearly 700,000 more jobs created in November and December than initially reported. Wages grew by 5.7 percent last month, compared to a year ago, a good gain, but still below the rate of inflation. And the unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 4 percent, as more people returned to the job market.

    President Biden took note of the big gains this afternoon.

    And I spoke with Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, a short time ago.

    Ron Klain, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    This is a day of good news about jobs. These are numbers the administration has to be happy about, not just last month, but November, December. How much of this can the president take credit for?

    Ron Klain, White House Chief of Staff: Well, look, it's first and foremost an accomplishment of the American people, their resilience — the president talked about that today — their ability to take everything that the past few years, that the Omicron variant has thrown at them, and be back at work and fight on and help grow this economy, our business sector, our workers, everyone coming together to do this.

    But I do think the president deserves a lot of credit for the policies we put in place that made this recovery possible, the Rescue Plan in March that got the economy off its back and going, buy American, made in America policies that have really restored our manufacturing strength, and the bipartisan infrastructure plan that's got a lot of Americans out there working building bridges and roads, airports, all these critical things.

    So, it's been a strong economic policy that has unleashed the power, the creativity, the energy of the American people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the same time, there's already speculation that this could lead to higher-than-expected rate increases, interest rate increases, by the Federal Reserve in March.

    How concerned is the White House about that? And, as you know, the American people say they are very worried about inflation. What can the president do about that?

  • Ron Klain:

    Well, first of all, about the Federal Reserve decisions, we have a policy we don't comment on what the Fed does. They're independent. They do what they think is best for the nation in managing the monetary supply.

    I will say, the president has sent five incredibly distinguished nominees to the Federal Reserve to the U.S. Senate. I hope they will be confirmed shortly to add their voices — some are continuing, some new members — to manage the critical issues the Fed manages.

    In terms of inflation, you heard the president talk today about understanding the pain the American people feel when they go to the gas pump and the grocery store and pay those higher prices. And what he talked about today is his agenda on Capitol Hill to bring down the everyday costs Americans are facing, to cut the cost of child care, to cut the cost of prescription drugs, to cut the cost of health insurance,to cut the costs of eldercare for people taking care of elderly relatives and family members.

    So, there is an agenda we have up on the Hill to really reduce the everyday prices the American people face. I will let the Fed do its job. We're going to do our job.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me turn you, Ron Klain, to COVID.

    As we know, it does appear the number of cases of Omicron is receding. But at the same time, the United States is now approaching 900,000 deaths from COVID, more than half of those since President Biden took office. To what extent is that a result of the delay addressing the need for more tests on COVID, and, frankly, just understanding the seriousness of Omicron?

  • Ron Klain:

    Well, Judy, I don't think anyone has or hasn't perished from COVID because of the lack of a test.

    I think that we have people perishing from COVID because they haven't been vaccinated. Well, we know is that vaccinated people, particularly fully vaccinated people who've been boosted, which we have made available out for many months, those people have a very, very, very small chance of severe illness or death from COVID.

    The people who are dying from COVID now are overwhelmingly people who have not been vaccinated. Now, that vaccine is available at thousands, tens of thousands of locations nationwide, free of charge, almost always without even a wait. Same thing for booster shots.

    And so we need to continue to do the work of getting more and more Americans vaccinated. We have really made it as available as possible. It is free. It is safe. It is FDA-approved. And we need to see more Americans get vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the same time, Ron Klain, I'm sure you are aware there's been a lot of commentary, even criticism of the administration for mixed signals on boosters in the last part of last year, and mixed signals, frankly, on who's in charge when it comes to COVID policy and what the American people should do.

    How do you answer that?

  • Ron Klain:

    Well, Judy, I think that's ridiculous.

    Jeff Zients has been the director of the COVID response since the early days of the transition. And his leadership has been exceptional. We got here, 2 percent of American — less than two million Americans were fully vaccinated. Now that number is over 210 million.

    There were zero, zero at-home tests in America when we took over, zero. Other countries had them. We didn't have them at all, a year into the pandemic, none of them. We now have hundreds of millions of tests available for people for use at home, available every single month.

    We have made tremendous progress on the booster shots. They were approved here this fall, and almost 90 million Americans now have gotten a booster shot. So, we have done our jobs in terms of advancing this COVID response, making the tools available for people to manage the COVID response.

    We have 75 percent of adults fully vaccinated. That last 25 percent needs to get over the finish line. They need to take advantage of the resources we provided that these — again, these free vaccines available within five miles of the homes of 92 percent of Americans. We have made the vaccines available. We have made the boosters available.

    We need the American people take advantage of them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Turning you now to the Supreme Court vacancy with the departure, the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer.

    You probably weren't going to get their votes anyway, a number of these Republican senators, but many of them are now out there saying, Ron Klain, that the fact that the president has said he promised he's going to choose a Black woman for this position, that it's become an affirmative action pick.

    Would it have been better for the president to simply not make that promise and then appoint a Black woman?

  • Ron Klain:

    Well, I think what would be best, Judy, would be if senators waited to see the president's nominee, to hear who she is, what her credentials are, what her qualifications are, before they say that they're going to vote against her.

    That seems like the fair thing to do to, give someone a fair hearing and judge that person once she's put forward to the Senate. The president's commitment to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court is in the same tradition of Ronald Reagan's commitment to put the very first woman on the Supreme Court back in 1981, when he nominated Sandra Day O'Connor, and, frankly, just President Trump's commitment to replace Justice Ginsburg with a woman when he put Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court.

    What I know is this. President Biden's going to select an incredibly credentialed, outstanding woman of great character, of great achievement, of great knowledge in the law. She will come before the U.S. Senate. And I think that she will earned a lot of votes in the Senate based on the fact that she will be incredibly well-qualified for the Supreme Court.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many things to ask you about. I have got two final questions.

  • Ron Klain:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One has to do with Ukraine.

    The president told the president of Ukraine last month, with 100,000 Russian troops on the border, that there's a distinct possibility they will invade in the month of February.

    Is that still the president's view?

  • Ron Klain:

    Well, it is certainly possible they will invade. Those troops are massing on the border.

    Obviously, only Vladimir Putin knows if he will send them across the border and when he will send them across the border. So, we certainly want the Ukrainians to be prepared for that possibility. We have sent more aid to them in 2021 and early 2022 than this country has since 2014.

    And we have obviously done a lot of work with our allies to be prepared for that possibility. We're deploying U.S. troops to Eastern Europe to make sure our NATO allies are secured. We're rallying the allies around the possibility of sanctions if President Putin makes this historic and tragic mistake.

    So, we are ready for whatever President Putin does. And we certainly hope, though — we're engaged also in active diplomacy to try to prevent this tragedy from unfolding.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, a question about you, Ron Klain.

    Again, you know a number of news reports in recent weeks about the role you have played as chief of staff, such a visible role. There are not just Republicans, but a number of Democrats, saying that it's you who has pulled the president too far to the left, that's hurt his agenda. They say that you have harmed the president's relations with and irritated leading Democrats on the Hill, Speaker Pelosi, Senator Joe Manchin.

    How much personal responsibility do you think you shoulder for where President Biden is today?

  • Ron Klain:

    Well, I'm proud of my role working here at the White House, helping President Biden achieve the successes we have achieved.

    He's passed more legislation in his first year than any president in history. That's thanks to very close work with Speaker Pelosi, who has been an outstanding legislative leader. We have gotten Senator Manchin's vote on the Rescue Plan, on the infrastructure bill, on every single one of the record number of federal judges that we have confirmed to the bench this year.

    So I think we're producing results for the American people. That includes the jobs report we started talking about today. I'm proud to play a role in that. I'm proud to work with an amazing team. I think there's way too much focus on me. There's a lot of incredibly talented individuals here at the White House. They are delivering for the American people every day, along with — obviously, with the leadership, of course, first and foremost of the president and Vice President Harris.

    I think we're delivering for the American people. I think we will be judged by our results.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Ron Klain:

    Thanks for having me, Judy.

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