WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden announced Friday that Jeff Zients, who served as the coronavirus response coordinator and a chairman of Biden's transition, would take over as the White House chief of staff.
Zients succeeds Ron Klain, a longtime fixture in Biden's political orbit who led the White House through its highs -- passage of consequential legislation such as the infrastructure bill and the Democrats' climate, health care and tax law, as well as dozens of judges confirmed in the first two years -- as well as its lows, such as the rocky withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The transition is the first major personnel change for an administration that has had minimal turnover at its highest ranks and throughout the Cabinet.
"I'm confident that Jeff will continue Ron's example of smart, steady leadership, as we continue to work hard every day for the people we were sent here to serve," Biden said in a statement, adding that Zients, like Klain, "understands what it means to lead a team" and "is as focused on getting things done."
Zients, 56, will be tasked with shepherding White House operations at Biden's pivotal two-year mark, when the Democratic administration shifts from ambitious legislating to implementing those policies and fending off Republican efforts to defang the achievements.
While several senior advisers, including Anita Dunn, Steven Ricchetti, Mike Donilon, Jennifer O'Malley Dillon and Bruce Reed are expected to oversee political operations, Zients will be expected to help oversee the implementation of the CHIPS Act, several infrastructure projects and the most significant expansion of veterans' health care benefits in decades.
"People are tired, they've done historic things," said Denis McDonough, the secretary of veterans affairs. And the president, he said, "needs to know that one person is accountable for the effective implementation of big priorities."
It was McDonough, who served as President Barack Obama's chief of staff for his second term, who first recruited Zients to work on fixing the glitch-prone website for Obama's health care program.
"He's not the guy who's in this for the debate," McDonough said of Zients. "He's not in this for scoring political points. He's in it for quality of life and for outcomes."
Through both the Obama and Biden administrations, Zients has been the go-to person for significant operational challenges -- such as a nationwide coronavirus vaccination campaign -- or to repair bureaucratic messes such as the glitches and crashes that marked the launch of HealthCare.gov in fall 2013.
Obama also tapped Zients in 2009 to eliminate the backlog in applicants for the Cash for Clunkers program, which offered rebates to drivers who swapped old cars for fuel-efficient vehicles. Zients later took on a similar challenge to smooth sign-ups for an updated version of the GI Bill.
Zients was vice chairman of Biden's transition after he won in November 2020 and served as director of the National Economic Council during the Obama administration and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.
"I asked Jeff Zients to handle some of our toughest challenges and, without fail, his leadership proved invaluable," Obama tweeted on Friday. "He led my economic team as we pushed our most progressive economic policies, and I know he'll serve POTUS and the American people well in this new role."
As covid-19 coordinator, Zients led the effort that administered more than 220 million vaccinations in Biden's first 100 days, while shoring up the nation's supply of therapeutics and tests and distributing them. Zients gradually shifted the administration from a so-called "wartime" effort that grappled with covid-19 at its most severe levels, to a strategy that would allow people to resume some normalcy with a virus that is likely to be endemic.
Although Zients left the administration in April 2022, he quietly returned in recent months to ensure the remaining two years of Biden's term would be adequately staffed, a prelude to his taking on the much broader managerial role.
Zients' appointment continues the White House chief of staff job as among the most influential positions in the U.S. government only to have ever been filled by white men.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he cannot think of a better person "to help smoothly implement the transformational legislation Congress passed."
"Jeff is the epitome of what an outstanding chief of staff should be. He's organized, focused and deliberate, exactly the right person to lead the Biden administration and ensure the American people see and feel the benefits of these new laws," Schumer said.
In the private sector, Zients served as top executive at the Advisory Board Co., a Washington consulting firm, and he maintains close relations with the business community. He's worth between about $90 million and $400 million, according to the financial disclosure he filed when he entered the White House in 2021.
"I respect him enormously," Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who spoke regularly with Zients during his stint as covid-19 response coordinator, said this week. "He's a very bright guy. I expect to be able to communicate with him."
Yet those business ties have already spurred criticism of the Zients selection from some on the left, who have blasted the incoming chief of staff for his private-sector background. Progressives are anticipating a shift from Klain, who regularly tended to that ideological wing of the party and retained close ties with liberal lawmakers.
Zients was also an initial investor in Call Your Mother, a local bagel shop, although he divested his shares before joining the administration in 2021. He has also served as chairman of the Children's National Hospital in Washington.
When he leaves the White House, Klain will take with him decades of institutional knowledge about Washington politics, the inner workings of Capitol Hill and the Biden family -- in his statement, the president pointed out that he had known Klain since he was a third-year law student.
Klain, in his resignation letter to Biden, said it was the "right time" for a transition after the president's "indisputably historic" first two years in office.
"The halfway point of your first term -- with two successful years behind us, and key decisions on the next two years ahead -- is the right time for this team to have fresh leadership," he wrote. "I have served longer than eight of the last nine Chiefs of Staff, and have given this job my all; now it is time for someone else to take it on."
The president's first two years "would not have been nearly as successful without Ron Klain by the President's side," Schumer said and noted that he spoke with the outgoing chief of staff multiple times every day, knowing that his counsel and questions would be directly communicated to Biden.
Klain pledged to do whatever he could to help Biden seek reelection should he "choose to run" in 2024. Ricchetti, Donilon and Reed will continue in Biden's inner circle, while Klain, a longtime Democratic operative, will continue to advise and be involved from the outside.
Biden has said he "intends" to campaign for another term, and his staff has begun preparations ahead of an expected formal announcement in the spring but has said that the president has not made a formal decision.
Biden said the White House would hold a formal event for Klain next week and "officially welcome Jeff back to the White House in this role."
Information for this article was contributed by Seung Min Kim and Zeke Miller of The Associated Press and by Katie Rogers of The New York Times.