AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
Ron Klain was Joe Biden’s first personnel decision after the 2020 election, ostensibly representative of the “adults” that Biden claimed to be putting back in charge. But as the embattled President continues to sink in the polls and Democrats face impending disaster this November, it increasingly looks as if Klain may become the latest victim of Biden’s blame game for why his administration has failed to inspire the support or confidence of the American people.
According to reporting from NBC News last week, “multiple people close to the White House said they’ve heard that chief of staff Ron Klain will depart at some point after the midterms,” apparently in the hope of changing the public perception of a White House that has failed to do enough to alleviate the litany of crises plaguing the nation. Other Democratic insiders have suggested that Klain could be shown the door even before the midterm elections – a move that would seem to confirm reports of dysfunction inside the West Wing and show just how desperate Democrats are for any sort of shakeup before Election Day.
While it is true that White House Chiefs of Staff often don’t serve entire presidential terms (at just under 18 months, Klain is already close to the average tenure for the position), were Klain to depart 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue either before the midterms or immediately following a major defeat for Democrats, it would mark a rather ignominious final chapter for someone whom the New York Times lauded last January for his “steady nerves” and “fierce wit” as “political tactician… well versed in the levers of power in both the executive and legislative branches of government.”
For Klain, the feeling is likely one of exasperation with a situation that is in many ways out of his control. The public’s lack of confidence in the President is largely a result of both his evident cognitive decline, something Klain is powerless to stop, and the rash of crises that have defined Biden’s presidency. Though Klain does play a significant role in crafting policy, he is similarly incapable of arresting the dramatic leftward slide of the Democratic Party generally, something which has left the President deeply out of touch with ordinary voters (although some close to the President believe Klain has actively pushed Biden too far to the left). Klain cannot fix the widening rift between moderate and progressive Democrats that has played a role in endangering so many incumbents this fall, nor can he do anything about the series of court decisions which have ruled many of Biden’s executive actions to be unlawful, from keeping Title 42 in place to striking down the mask mandate on airplanes. Yet as Chief of Staff, all of these defeats now rest at Klain’s feet.
To be sure, Klain is far from guiltless in his reported fall from grace. Critics have argued that Klain, a Washington careerist who started as legislative director for then-Representative Ed Markey back in 1983, is too often preoccupied with Beltway gossip rather than the issues concerning ordinary Americans. Nowhere has this manifested more than Klain’s prolific Twitter presence. Last October, Klain caused a headache for the administration when he retweeted a post that dismissed rising inflation and supply chain issues as “high-class” problems, something which even liberal outlets like CNN questioned. Klain has also repeatedly shared false or misleading claims about the administration’s record on the economy and COVID-19 which have been easily debunked and led to grumblings among some staff that Klain’s use of Twitter is distracting from the White House’s overall messaging strategy.
Klain has also come up short in regard to delivering on Biden’s policy priorities. When Biden hired Klain, the President-elect specifically noted his “capacity to work with people all across the political spectrum.” But once in the job, Klain failed to build any sort of rapport between the White House and Republican Members of Congress, a fact that has doomed large portions of Biden’s domestic agenda. Even Democrats have complained about Klain’s handling of the job, saying that he has too often acceded to the demands of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, something which has deeply alienated Democrat Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
However, given Klain’s record over more than a decade in the top echelon of Democratic politics, it should perhaps be unsurprising that he has failed to rise to the task. When Klain was tapped to be Biden’s Chief of Staff shortly after the 2020 election, many in the mainstream media pointed to his involvement in the Obama administration’s response to the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 and as Barack Obama’s “Ebola Czar” in 2014, claiming that these experiences had prepared Klain to advise Biden on how to lead the country out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that analysis overlooked Klain’s actual performance during those crises, which was hardly exemplary. On Swine Flu, Klain himself said that it was “purely a fortuity” that the virus wasn’t “one of the great mass casualty events in American history,” and that the fact that the virus did not become a COVID-19-level disaster “had nothing to do with us doing anything right. It just had to do with luck.” Klain later walked back the comments and claimed that he was only referring to the Obama administration’s failures to produce a vaccine, but only after backlash from other former Obama staffers.
On Ebola, the New York Post slammed Klain as essentially “invisible” in his role as Obama’s point person handling the government’s response, and the administration’s messaging strategy often seemed haphazard at best and nonexistent at worst. Again, the country seemed to emerge largely unscathed thanks to the simple fact that the virus was not that transmissible. It was perhaps predictable, then, that Klain would once again prove incapable of developing a strategy to combat a pandemic when it came to COVID-19, but this time the results were far more catastrophic, with more Americans dying in 2021 than 2020, even with the vaccines inherited from the Trump administration.
If media reports are accurate, White House adviser Anita Dunn is the odds-on favorite to replace Klain when he finally does depart. The younger and seemingly popular Dunn may or may not prove a more skilled operator. But no matter who occupies the role, they’ll likely face many of the same problems as Klain – after all, the buck ultimately doesn’t stop with them, but just a few yards down the hall with the man in the Oval Office.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @Shane_Harris_