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White House chief of staff Ron Klain’s forthcoming departure from office has concerned liberals who have come to know him as a crucial ally in President Biden’s Washington.
Klain, one of Biden’s oldest confidants, has worked to ease the Democratic Party’s divide, serving as connective tissue between progressives and the establishment figures closest to the president, while often offering a sympathetic ear to the left.
Progressives now fear his impending exit, and the entrance of his successor, Jeff Zients, could break the critical link between their flank and moderates as they adjust to being in the minority in Congress and have to rely more on the executive branch to get things done.
“‘Skeptical’ only begins to describe the reasonable and widespread view of Zients that’s shared by many progressive Democrats,” said Norman Solomon, who co-founded the digital activist support network RootsAction.org.
“Replacing Klain with him is a step backward and rightward for a White House orientation that has deteriorated during the last two years,” he said.
Solomon’s sentiments are shared by much of the left’s most activated grassroots population. Last week, after Biden announced that Zients would replace Klain — a worst-kept secret after news of Klain’s anticipated leave broke earlier this month — some progressives were already raising concerns about his ideological fitness for the role.
Zients, a veteran of the public-private dance, is well regarded for his work shepherding the administration’s COVID-19 effort, one of Democrats’ most significant areas of focus after Biden took office. He has earned praise from top scientific experts like Anthony Fauci, as well as Democratic Govs. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Gavin Newsom of California, who have for years dealt with the realities of the pandemic from the front lines. And on Capitol Hill, some of Biden’s closest allies praised Zients as a strong choice.
Beyond steering the coronavirus response, the incoming chief of staff is best known for his career in the private sector, working in a variety of fields from health care to consulting and private equity. He’s worked for Bain Consulting — a bullet point that garnered the headline from the conservative-leaning Washington Free Beacon: “Finally: A Bain Man Makes it to the White House” — and had a recent position on the board of Facebook. He even helped fund the bagel shop Call Your Mother, a favorite of Washington politicians and residents alike.
That’s not to say his impact has been felt mostly out of government. Zients has also had ample public sector experience, dating back to former President Obama’s administration, where he worked in the Office of Management and Budget and on the National Economic Council as its director.
While there are plenty of Democrats who view his résumé favorably, no one is as satisfied with his track record as the president himself. In announcing Zients, Biden ticked off a list of credentials that he believes will be well suited to tackle some of the biggest challenges moving into the next phase of office, where the party is expected to face new hurdles advancing their agenda in a divided Congress.
“He helped manage our Administration’s transition into office under incredibly trying circumstances,” Biden said in a statement from the White House. “Thanks to Jeff, we had a historically diverse team in place on Day 1 ready to go to work.”
Biden’s vote of confidence is reassuring to many Democrats who anticipate tough times ahead. They see a still-present pandemic and a list of priorities that will be harder to achieve now that Republicans are in control of the House. And they are eyeing a 2024 election cycle where the GOP is expected to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the Biden administration.
But not everyone is as enthused about a corporate sector pro entering the same White House that liberals have worked to make more progressive since Biden was inaugurated two years ago.
Some progressives concede they are willing to wait and see how Zients handles the new role, while others have taken a more critical and even adversarial stance around Biden’s selection.
For those in the waiting camp, the initial reaction is more about allowing time for the initial sting from Klain’s upcoming departure to ease a bit. Many on the left came to know Klain personally and have expressed a deep fondness for him.
“Ron Klain is a national treasure,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “He was deeply respectful of both the strength and the power of the Progressive Caucus and the progressive movement.”
One of Klain’s central roles as chief of staff was to foster strong relations with different corners of the party, and progressives in particular liked to work with him directly. From lawmakers to activists, many expressed an appreciation for his willingness to hear out their concerns on everything from wish-list items to personnel decisions. Several had his number on hand and used it regularly.
Indeed, it wasn’t exactly a secret that progressives wanted Klain to stay on. Many influential liberals in Congress were hopeful that he would stick it out through the second campaign cycle, following a midterm season that went well for the party and where progressives saw some traction and areas for more advancement. Even though Democrats lost the House in November, many on the left, including Jayapal, were looking ahead to possible executive actions that they could do with Klain’s buy-in.
“We’ve seen powerful, progressive governance from the Biden Administration and Ron was critical to making so much of that happen,” said Jayapal, who also expressed optimism about working with Zients as well.
Biden’s own relationship with Klain spans over three decades and two years in this role. His relationship to Zients, on the other hand, is still young by comparison. For progressives, that Zients is a sort of unknown quantity has raised questions about how he’ll operate.
One progressive campaign strategist who’s worked with high profile liberal candidates and lawmakers conceded he doesn’t “know much about Zients,” but stressed that he’ll miss Klain’s unique style. “The coalition partners I work with really do like Ron because of his open door policy,” the source said.
Others have expressed stronger opposition to the change, directing anger toward Biden.
“Waiting for Joe Biden to do something progressive or bold is a fool’s errand,” said Cenk Uygur, host of popular left-wing program The Young Turks. “Of course he’s going to hire a corporatist chief of staff, because that’s who he is.”
Like Uygur, some on the left are disappointed in what they view as the administration’s hesitation and unwillingness to take on progressives’ more ambitious policies like “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and other populist reforms with big price tags.
To moderates, that middle-ground approach is what saved critical seats in the midterms and prevented more bleeding in the House and Senate than what Democrats ultimately sustained.
But to progressives, it’s entirely unnecessary. Now, many are dispirited by the GOP control of the lower chamber and by a Supreme Court that they see as another potential barrier to some of their biggest goals, like student loan relief, which Klain played a role in advancing.
And some see Zients’s history and professional priorities as more evidence that the administration will keep moving toward a centrist posture, rather than as a bridge builder for the left.
“It doesn’t matter who he would have hired,” Uygur speculated about Biden’s new chief of staff. “There is a zero-percent chance Biden is going to do anything progressive going forward.”