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Zients left the White House in April after steering the administration’s pandemic response and leading the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history. He returned to the White House in the fall to help Klain prepare for staff turnover after the midterms — a project that was ultimately limited in scope, as few senior staff members have left across the administration. But, in recent weeks, Klain has assigned him different projects, which some viewed as preparing Zients for the top role, people familiar with the arrangement said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment.
Zients takes over the top job as Biden is entering a new and challenging stretch of his presidency: Republicans have already launched a barrage of investigations into the administration and the business dealings of the president’s son. Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel to investigate the handling of classified documents found at Biden’s personal office and Wilmington, Del., home. And Biden is preparing to launch his reelection bid.
Zients comes into the job with a vastly different profile than Klain: His first government job was during the Obama administration, and he has spent most of his career in the private sector. He has only ever worked in the executive branch. His personal Twitter account has no posts.
But colleagues have praised Zients as a master implementer who engenders deep loyalty from the people he oversees.
As Biden ramps up his political activity, some Democrats said they expect the structure of the chief of staff role to change, with Biden’s political advisers, including Anita Dunn, Jen O’Malley Dillon, Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti and Bruce Reed, taking on even more prominence in the building.
They compared the arrangement to that of the Obama White House, when Jack Lew served as chief of staff in 2012 and focused on keeping the federal government running, while David Plouffe, a political strategist, came into the White House from 2011 to 2013 as a senior adviser to oversee the reelection campaign. Democrats say Dunn, a senior adviser, will serve in a Plouffe-like role.
Zients, 56, was born in Washington and attended St. Albans School before graduating from Duke University. A successful management consultant, he ran the Advisory Board Company alongside David Bradley before taking it public and netting tens of millions of dollars. In the early 2000s, Zients formed a group to attempt to purchase the Washington Nationals, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful.
He first entered government during the Obama administration and ended up serving in multiple senior roles, including running the Office of Management and Budget and the National Economic Council. He developed a reputation as “Mr. Fix-It” for his strong operational skills, including helping to fix the troubled rollout of the Obama administration’s health-care website, healthcare.gov.
After leaving the Obama administration, Zients ran an investment firm and spent two years on the board of Facebook, experience that has drawn criticism from liberals.
During Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, Zients was brought in to help with the campaign’s finances during a particularly difficult stretch. He then co-chaired Biden’s transition before leading the administration’s coronavirus response.
In leading the effort to fight the pandemic, Zients took on one of the most challenging and critical task for the president — overseeing the early efforts to vaccinate the American public and adapt to new and highly infectious variants. When Zients left the White House, Biden praised him as a “man of service and an expert manager.”
“I called on Jeff Zients to lead my Administration’s COVID-19 response because there is no one better at delivering results than Jeff,” Biden said in a statement at the time.