Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Commander in Chief of Staff

Should we infer anything from a recent transition in the Biden White House?

President Biden Discusses Drought, Heat, And Wildfires In West
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain attends an event with governors of western states and members of the Biden administration cabinet June 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Ron Klain is stepping down as White House chief of staff, set to go sometime next month after the State of the Union address. In the last administration, where the factionalism and court politics and big personalities were so obvious, turnover in the chief role never seemed more suggestive than anything else. There was hardly any scenery to be behind. But with the notable, not terribly surprising exception of the vice president’s office, this White House has been allowed its privacy, with little apparent chaos. Klain has run President Joe Biden’s West Wing for two years, and though he has reportedly indicated his intent to leave this year for some time, it is difficult not to see this timing as significant. Let’s drink the tea, read the leaves. 

Jeff Zients will be the new chief of staff, according to the Washington Post, and confirmed by NPR and other outlets in a tidy one, two, three rollout after the New York Times announced Klain’s departure. Zients was Biden’s Covid-19 response coordinator most recently—we all know how that went—but before that he made a lot of money. Zients is a private equity guy, after his management consulting career eventually led him to the OMB and then to being part of the slightly more successful healthcare.gov rollout of 2013. His personal net worth more than doubled in the time between his exit of the Obama administration and joining the Biden White House. Perhaps of interest: From 2018 to 2020 he sat on Facebook’s board of directors.


As part of a highly orchestrated transition, the Times obituary for the Klain years tries to walk a tricky line, attempting both to give Klain the hagiographic treatment loyal establishment functionaries not unreasonably expect and to pooh-pooh any suggestion that a Biden chief of staff might have more power than most. Peter Baker and Katie Rogers fail to find that balance, but you can’t really blame them; President Biden is an old man, older than his years, and everyone can see it. Klain, meanwhile, “steered President Biden’s administration through two years of triumphs and setbacks,” and “has been a singularly important figure in Mr. Biden’s administration." They continue:

Having worked for Mr. Biden off and on for more than three decades, Mr. Klain channels the president as few others can, admirers say. He is seen as so influential that Republicans derisively call him a virtual prime minister and Democrats blame him when they are disappointed in a decision.

Klain (Georgetown, Harvard Law) was associate counsel to President Bill Clinton, counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno, and chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore; he worked with Biden in the Senate and then as Vice President Biden’s chief of staff.  

A Democratic loyalist and a Biden man through and through then. Or then again, perhaps in a post-Clinton, post-Obama world it is difficult to say what the Democratic establishment even is. There was a hiccup in 2015, when Klain saw which way the winds were blowing and jumped ship to team Hillary. The Times quotes Klain as saying he was “dead to” the Biden family afterwards, but then suggests his strategic value was such that he “worked his way back into the good graces” of Joe and Jill. If Biden has been calling real shots, that is one way to spin it, certainly; if, as seems more probable, Biden is a frontman for what amounts to an ESG politburo, then, lurid as the Biden family drama is, we can’t forget that the Democratic Party was in open civil war during the primary until some combination of the major machines intervened to make the competition disappear. Klain has been part of all three recent Democratic worlds, Clinton, Obama, and Biden. In two of those it was obvious which way the orders went. These days we are all still left wondering who is in charge, and Zients, who Slate worries is no friend of labor and Biden’s traditional Democratic base, doesn’t clarify that much—the transformation of the Democratic Party into a high-low alliance against the middle is a legacy of both the Clintons and Obama. 

The careful choreography of this chief of staff transition comes close behind another striking one, two, three rollout, the revelation that Biden has improperly handled classified documents. Now there is a special counsel investigating it. And there are congressional investigations for Biden around the corner, too, looking at everything from his family’s business dealings to the abject failure to enforce immigration laws. If we start with—at risk of being repetitive but to lay out the logic—the premise that Joseph Robinette Biden has only ever ceremonially been the president of the United States, just like he was only ever ceremonially the winner of his primary, then we know there is in this administration quite a lot of scenery for things to happen behind. Indeed, seeing puppets we might even assume strings. So when the same media apparatus that worked so wonderfully well to get a guy elected starts to do an honest day’s reporting on his troubles, even suggesting that he is in fact in trouble, then perhaps we are entitled to ask whether this actor is being prepared to exit stage left. And then to wonder, once again, who is in charge?