Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Biden Faces the Future Without Ron Klain

“Congratulations, you’ve got the worst job in government.” That’s what James A. Baker III, Ronald Reagan’s quintessential White House chief of staff, tells his successors when they call him for advice. For Ron Klain, the job came with both headaches and herculean challenges: a once-in-a-century pandemic, a crippled economy, global warming and the aftermath of an attempted insurrection that polarized the country.

All that before a Russian invasion of Ukraine, raging inflation and supply chain crises. Thanks in no small part to Mr. Klain, Mr. Biden is weathering these storms. Despite the revelations of his mishandling of classified documents, the president enters his third year in office with real momentum.

But now comes the hard part. Mr. Biden, an octogenarian, must navigate the uncharted waters of a bruising re-election campaign (he will almost certainly run), with a special counsel investigating him and a hostile Republican-controlled House hellbent on sinking him. And he must do so without Mr. Klain, who is aiming to leave next month. His portfolio will go to a new, untested chief of staff; that person, widely reported to be Mr. Biden’s former coronavirus response coordinator, Jeffrey Zients, will have large shoes to fill. Soon we will know just how critical Mr. Klain was to Mr. Biden’s success.

Mr. Klain wasn’t perfect. On his watch, the president fumbled the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Mr. Biden’s wildly ambitious Build Back Better bill sputtered along for months before crashing and burning, accelerating a steady decline in his popularity.

Yet Mr. Klain’s patient, nose-to-the-grindstone stewardship ultimately paid off. Like the two best White House chiefs before him — Mr. Baker, under Mr. Reagan, and Leon Panetta, under Bill Clinton — Mr. Klain had a rare combination of assets: White House experience, knowledge of Capitol Hill, political savvy and managerial acumen. His collegial style kept the West Wing practically leakproof and drama-free.

Most important, Mr. Klain had a strong relationship with the boss. With Mr. Klain as his top adviser, the president rallied NATO in defense of Ukraine, created almost 11 million jobs and confirmed more judges than some previous presidents in their first two years in office, including Mr. Reagan and Donald Trump.

Most notably, despite a razor-thin Democratic margin in Congress during his first two years, Mr. Biden passed a raft of bipartisan legislation — a once-in-a-generation infrastructure bill, a gun safety law, the CHIPS and Science bill and the veterans’ health care measure, among others. Along with the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Democrats alone, this is a record of legislative accomplishment rivaling Lyndon Johnson’s.

The chief’s job is so relentless and grueling that Mr. Klain almost resigned after just nine months. (The average tenure is 18 months.) Over the past two years, I spoke with him regularly for a book I was writing on the Biden White House. During a conversation on the patio of his West Wing office in late October 2021, he told me he was exhausted and considering quitting. But Mr. Klain, a student of history, knew the risk of leaving too close to upcoming midterm elections; previous Democratic chiefs, thrust into the job on short notice, suffered shellackings by the Republicans. After talking it over with his wife, Mr. Klain decided to soldier on.

Mr. Biden was fortunate that he did. As the midterms approached in November 2022, the president wanted to campaign nearly everywhere and brag about his first-term accomplishments. Mr. Klain sat his boss down and advised him to go only to states where he could make a difference — and focus on women’s reproductive rights and the threat to democracy. With Mr. Biden following that script, the Democrats defied predictions of a G.O.P. rout, maintaining their control of the Senate and losing just a few seats in the House.

For his part, Mr. Zients would bring impressive credentials to the job. An entrepreneur who has made millions in the private sector, Mr. Zients led the administration’s battle against Covid-19, combating a lethal pandemic and getting 220 million shots in arms in the first 100 days of Mr. Biden’s presidency. Since his days in Barack Obama’s administration, he’s been regarded as a genius at making government work. After he fixed the Obama administration’s botched website for the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Biden took to calling him a B.F.D. — for Big Deal, with an expletive thrown in — after the vice president’s famous off-mic remark. Mr. Zients also shares with Mr. Klain a first-class temperament. He never gets too high when things are going well or too low when disaster strikes.

Still, Mr. Zients has weaknesses that could spell trouble ahead. Because of his involvement with corporations (he served on the Facebook board of directors),Democratic progressives regard him with suspicion. For a re-election campaign, he lacks Mr. Klain’s deep political savvy. This could lead Mr. Biden to rely on other aides — Steven Ricchetti, Anita Dunn and Jennifer O’Malley Dillon — for advice while Mr. Zients tends to the day-to-day running of the West Wing. But that would be a mistake; to govern effectively, every president needs an empowered chief of staff who is first among equals. That person needn’t have strong political views, like Klain, but he must have strong instincts.

Moreover, Mr. Zients’s relationship with Mr. Biden, while close, can’t match Mr. Klain’s three-decade bond with his boss, which enabled him to tell the president hard truths. It’s difficult to imagine Mr. Zients second-guessing the president’s stubborn political instincts. But that’s what chiefs are paid to do.

This has no bearing on Mr. Zients personally, but naming a man to be chief of staff might also be a missed opportunity: No woman has ever shattered that glass ceiling.

Mr. Biden’s new chief’s to-do list is daunting. First, he (or she) must manage Mr. Biden’s handling of the classified documents imbroglio — working with, and sometimes acting as a counterweight to, the president’s private lawyer, Bob Bauer. In addition, Mr. Klain’s successor must put the president’s re-election team in place and ensure that campaigning doesn’t interfere with governing.

Second, the new chief must fend off a House Republican majority with several 2020 election deniers on key committees. The president and his new chief should take a page from Mr. Clinton’s playbook: Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican caucus pursued a scorched-earth political strategy, impeaching Mr. Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but the 42nd president mostly ignored them and focused on governing.

Third, Mr. Biden and his chief must manage formidable domestic challenges, starting with avoiding a recession and continuing to bring inflation under control. Given Republican control of the House, legislation will likely take a back seat, and Mr. Biden’s chief will have to rely heavily on executive orders to achieve things in the margins. A high priority will be carrying out the legislative accomplishments of Mr. Biden’s first two years. Those won’t really count until Americans feel the practical results in their lives — for example, paying less for prescription drugs or buying electric cars.

Fourth, overseas, Mr. Biden’s chief must help the president and his foreign policy team preserve NATO unity in defense of Ukraine, even as domestic critics on the right try to unravel it.

Looming over all these challenges is the quandary of Mr. Trump. If Mr. Biden’s Justice Department decides not to prosecute the ex-president — for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol or in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents scandal — millions of Americans will consider the American justice system hollow. But if Mr. Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, chooses to put Mr. Trump in the dock, his acolytes in and out of government could cause chaos. Either way, the president and his chief will have to manage potentially significant political aftershocks.

When I asked Mr. Klain how he thought Joe Biden would fare without him, he said: “It can always get worse. It can always get better. It’s a great team that’s around the president, and most of that team will remain.”

Bad things can happen when White House chiefs are changed in midstream. Shortly after Mr. Reagan’s Treasury secretary Donald Regan replaced Mr. Baker as chief in 1985, an ill-advised scheme to trade arms to Iran for American hostages held in Lebanon was born. The Iran-contra scandal, hatched in the National Security Council and abetted by the imperial and clueless Mr. Regan, nearly led to Mr. Reagan’s impeachment.

Mr. Biden’s next chief has to be on the alert for these UFOs — unforeseen occurrences.

Chris Whipple is the author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency” and, most recently, “The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House.”

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