President Joe Biden is expected to tap Jeff Zients, who ran the administration’s Covid-19 response effort and served in high-ranking roles in the Obama administration, to succeed Ron Klain as the next White House chief of staff.
Biden decided on Zients after an internal search when it became clear that Klain, who is expected to resign in the coming weeks, favored Zients as his successor, a factor that played a big role in the president’s decision. Klain had tapped Zients to lead a talent search for expected staff turnover following the midterm elections, but that didn’t ultimately materialize after Democrats performed better than expected.
In replacing Klain with Zients, Biden is turning to a consultant with more business experience than political background as he enters the third year of his presidency.
The decision to pick Zients surprised some internally given that there were differences in Biden’s and Zients’ management styles early on in the administration. But Biden was impressed with his job as the coronavirus response coordinator when Zients inherited what officials described as a “largely dysfunctional” effort by the Trump administration.
Another factor in the search was how this stretch of Biden’s presidency will focus on implementing the legislation enacted in his first two years, and Zients is seen internally as a “master implementor,” one source said. His operational skills were on display as he handled the coronavirus response and helped with the bungled 2013 launch of HealthCare.gov during the Obama administration.
Zients now has a closer relationship with Biden and with his senior advisers and multiple Cabinet members.
While Zients is not viewed as a political operator, his deep experience inside two administrations and his reputation for technocratic skill would likely serve as assets at a time when both are viewed as critical for what Biden faces in the year ahead.
Zients (rhymes with “science”) first joined the Biden administration in December 2020 when the then-president-elect appointed him as his White House coronavirus czar. He was tasked at the time with containing the coronavirus pandemic, mass distributing an approved vaccine and rebuilding a battered economy as Biden took office.
When he left that position over a year later, Biden praised Zients as “a man of service and an expert manager” and touted the progress the US had made in vaccinating Americans and beating back the pandemic under Zients’ watch.
“I will miss his counsel and I’m grateful for his service,” Biden said.
Earlier in his career, at the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, Zients was the country’s first chief performance officer and was tasked with making the government run smarter and less costly. Those duties fell under his other title as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. He would later go on to become acting director of that office.
Zients also served as the director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy under Obama.
He is credited with reviving the Obamacare enrollment website, Healthcare.gov, which had been plagued with issues and crashed shortly after its launch in 2013. The website, an online marketplace for medical insurance, was a critical centerpiece to Obama’s landmark health care law. Zients was the fix-it man and provided advice to the US Department of Health and Human Services as it worked to resolve the problems.
Zients has deep ties to the private sector. Before serving in government, he served as the chairman, chief executive officer and chief operating officer of the Advisory Board Company and chairman of the Corporate Executive Board, both Washington-area consulting firms. By the time he was 35, he had already landed a spot on Fortune’s list of the richest Americans under 40, ranking 25th with an estimated worth of $149 million after the Advisory Board went public.
He also founded Portfolio Logic, an investment firm focused on health care and business services.
After leaving the Obama administration, he served as the CEO of the holding company Cranemere and served a two-year stint on Facebook’s board of directors. Zients was also an investor in the popular Washington DC deli Call Your Mother and often brought bagels to the office once a week to share with White House staff.
Zients divested his shares in Facebook and Call Your Mother before gaining coronavirus czar status in the White House. He was worth at least $89.3 million when his financial disclosures were made public in March 2021, the wealthiest member of Biden’s Cabinet appointments.