AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
While facing a scandal over classified documents and a debt ceiling standoff with Congress, Joe Biden has now also lost his chief of staff.
Ron Klain has announced he will be stepping down in the next few weeks. To replace him, Biden has tapped Jeff Zients, a pharmaceutical investor who oversaw the re-launch of Obamacare’s Healthcare.gov after its catastrophic rollout, and then served as Biden’s COVID-19 czar from January 2021 until the spring of 2022. The transition tells us quite a lot about Joe Biden, and his plans for 2024.
Most importantly, if Klain’s departure has caused speculation in some circles about Biden not running again or somehow being pushed out in 2024, Zients’s selection should end it. It is hard to think of a more “Joe Biden” pick for the role, as Zients reflects virtually all of the same instincts of the current president: self-assuredness, confidence in his own indispensability, combined with frustration at those who cannot grasp his greatness. If the past is prologue, we should expect a highly combative next two years from the Biden administration.
In Ron Klain, Biden found someone whose public career mirrored his own. The defining feature of Biden’s career – at least in his own mind – has been that of “destiny delayed.” First serving in the Senate at the minimum age of 30, Biden’s sense of destiny crashed into plagiarism allegations during his 1988 presidential bid, and he dropped out before the first primaries.
Biden’s efforts to reinvent himself as an elder statesman were undermined by his atrocious handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, and then his 2008 campaign fizzled. After serving as vice president under Barack Obama, Biden was forced out of the 2016 contest to succeed his boss by Hillary Clinton. His belated 2020 effort almost crashed once again, only to be revived in South Carolina by the implosion of his rivals. He then stumbled into the presidency in a manner which was underwhelming to most, but a vindication for himself.
For Ron Klain, becoming White House Chief of Staff in 2021 was similarly an overdue vindication. At age 31, he shepherded Ruth Bader Ginsberg onto the Supreme Court while serving in the Clinton administration. At 33, he was Attorney General Janet Reno’s chief of staff, then at the age of 34 he became the chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore. He left that role in 1999 to run Gore’s campaign, a trajectory which would have taken him to the job he holds now in 2001, at the youthful age of 40.
But Klain was forced out of the Gore campaign, only to be brought back for the Florida recount effort, where he again suffered defeat. There followed wilderness years, where nothing went right. Klain worked for Wesley Clark and then John Kerry in 2004, followed by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh in 2008. Joe Biden chose him as his chief of staff in 2008, and it was a testament to how his career had gone that the offer of the same job he had held 13 years before came as a godsend.
Napoleon Bonaparte once was asked what he valued in his marshals. After being told an officer was conscientious, clever, and aggressive, he asked, “but are they lucky?” Both Klain and Biden had been unlucky, with careers marked by failure. Nonetheless, by sheer force of inertia, they had forced their way upwards. Late, and after having failed repeatedly, they finally made it.
It is remarkable how that outlook, that if you fail, try again, and keep trying the same thing until it works, which defined the careers of both Klain and Biden, has also defined the current administration. Whether it be the 18-month-long effort to pass the “Inflation Reduction Act” or foreign policy, the Biden administration does not pivot unless forced, and does not admit mistakes. If things fail to work, it is because others have failed the administration, and the policy just needs more time to deliver results.
That is precisely the energy that Jeff Zients brought to his work as Biden’s COVID-19 czar. From the start, Zients’s attitude was that the response he had inherited from the “experts” and the public health establishment was the best possible response imaginable. It did not matter that parents and childhood specialists worried about the impact of remote education on students, or that multiple countries and even states had resumed in-person instruction with no difficulties. Zients continued pushing guidelines for masking and remote learning. His attitude toward vaccines was equally stubborn.
Zients felt that he had the best vaccine he could ever need, and while he was quick to dispense with the Johnson & Johnson shot at the first rumors of trouble, he saw no need to invest in the purchase of non-mRNA vaccines. Instead, he felt his job was to berate Americans until they took the Moderna and Pfizer shots, even as many would have been happy to have a more traditional alternative. His attitude was illustrated when he told the unvaccinated that they were “looking at a winter of severe illness and death.”
When it came to international travel, he recommended a mandate of masks on U.S. flights, trains, and even busses long after the rest of the world dropped them, and enraged European leaders by urging Biden to maintain a travel ban on entering the United States. In both cases, Biden listened, and the results were predictably disastrous.
Many, including Democratic politicians who panicked after Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia, would have seen this tenure as a failure at best, and disastrous at worst. Their decision to reopen their states, ignoring an increasingly impotent White House COVID-19 team, was a testament to their lack of confidence in the judgement of Zients and Biden. But Zients maintained the backing of Biden, and it was the federal courts, not the administration, which ended the federal mask mandate, a decision that was followed shortly by Zients’s departure.
It seems probable that Zients has been selected for the role not in spite of his performance as COVID-19 czar, but precisely because of it. For Biden, who has unshakable faith in his own destiny, the gravest risk is not that he will pursue erroneous policies, but that others will abandon him before they can succeed. In Zients, he has chosen a man who has not shown doubt in his public career, even when provided with overwhelming reason to do so.
Biden’s selection of Zients is not the choice of a man who is considering retiring, much less one who is being forced out. Zients made enemies of much of the Democratic establishment during his tenure as COVID-19 czar, and his role in the private sector makes him anathema to much of the left. Rather, it is the choice of a president who wants to signal that there will be no retreat heading into 2024, and that doubters should get out. If Ron Klain represented where Biden was in January 2021, having achieved his life’s ambition, Zients represents Biden post-November 2022, a president who knows he will run in 2024, and intends, at least in his own mind, to win.
Most importantly for the country, Biden’s selection is the choice of someone who believes they are correct. It was widely believed Klain would depart following the midterms, but his replacement was expected to be a response to their results. With the choice of Zients, Biden has made clear how he views the midterms: as vindication of all of his policies, which despite the doubters and the criticism internally, resulted in the “second best performance for an administration in a midterm in 60 years.” Why should he change now, at age 81? Because some documents were found? Don’t bet on it.
Americans should expect two more years of the same, or even more pure Biden.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.