You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Biden's no-drama White House chief

The Hill logo The Hill 6/6/2021 Chris Whipple, opinion contributor
Ron Klain, Joe Biden are posing for a picture: Biden's no-drama White House chief © The Hill Biden's no-drama White House chief

Joe Biden's first four months have been marked by a frenzy of presidential action - a $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan passed; 133 million Americans vaccinated; 167 million relief checks issued; childhood poverty on track to be cut in half; a Middle Eastern conflict defused. And yet the story of this presidency has so far been nearly devoid of drama.

Where are the White House power struggles and palace intrigue? Why are there no leaks? Where are the internecine battles over policy? The answer is that competence can be boring. (Or soothing, depending on your point of view.) Indeed, Biden's team has been nearly flawless at executing his agenda and lowering our collective political blood pressure.

And Ron Klain, his White House chief of staff, may be - at least at this early stage - the most effective in modern history.

The bar has been low lately. Trump and his final, feckless White House chief of staff Mark Meadows were so incompetent they utterly mismanaged - and tried to ignore - a once-in-a-century health crisis, contributing to more than a half million deaths. But even the best White House chiefs have stumbled out of the gate. Consider James A. Baker III, Reagan's first chief, who was considered the gold standard. His West Wing was Wrestle Mania - with the conservative Edwin Meese, the president's counselor, and the pragmatic Baker slamming each other around the ring. "The right hand," quipped the president, "does not know what the far-right hand is doing." Baker's team got almost nothing accomplished - until Reagan was wounded in an assassination attempt, creating a wave of sympathy that helped smooth the passage of his tax cuts after seven months in office. Even Obama's "no drama" White House was riven by warring egos and ideological factions.

By contrast, Klain and his staff have been getting things done, paddling furiously below the surface while gliding along with barely a ripple: no leaks, no mixed messages, no backbiting. "This is not a Team of Rivals," Anita Dunn - Biden's senior adviser and a member of both Obama's and Biden's inner circle - told me. Klain's unruffled management of the White House has impressed both sides of the aisle. "So far Ron has barely made a missstep," Ken Duberstein, Reagan's final chief of staff, told me.

It is a team that had prepared for this moment, when the very idea that government can do anything right is at stake. In contrast to Trump's wrecking crew, who shoveled sand into the gears of government, Klain and his team of policy wonks have spent their careers, in both the public and private sector, learning to work the levers of power. Some of them learned from previous White House blunders. When Barack Obama's healthcare website crashed upon its debut in 2013, his chief Denis McDonough reached out to a managerial wizard named Jeffrey Zients, who reconfigured the site and got it up and running. Eight years later, as Biden's COVID-19 czar, Zients has mobilized a whole-of-government pandemic response, delivering more than 300 million vaccine doses to Americans.

No chief has ever had better credentials than Klain for the job: as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Byron White; Senate Judiciary Committee counsel; chief of staff to two vice presidents, Al Gore and Biden; Ebola czar. Klain has also been helped by his close relationship with the boss. Many White House chiefs start learning how to manage the president on Inauguration Day. Klain has known Biden for almost 35 years and can practically complete his sentences. "It's a perfect fit because of his long relationship with the president," Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton's quintessential chief, told me.

Chiefs who are close friends with presidents sometimes have trouble telling them hard truths. But Klain is a staffer - and therefore able to tell Biden bad news. "I know him well and know what his needs are, and how he likes to be staffed, and how he likes the operation to go," Klain said recently. On Klain's set, the famously unscripted president hits his marks like a veteran actor.

Biden's team has made some unforced errors - a slow response to migrants flooding the Southern border; the failed nomination of Neera Tanden as OMB director; a foofaraw over refugee caps; tone deafness at the start of the Israeli-Hamas conflict. No Capitol Hill Republicans have so far signed on to Biden's agenda. And progressives may break ranks if he does not go bold enough for them on police reform and racial justice.

But that low hum you hear in place of the deafening sturm und drang of the last four years is not just the absence of Trump. It is the sound of a remarkably disciplined and effective White House.

The bad news for Biden? The average tenure of a chief of staff is only eighteen months.

Chris Whipple is the author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, and most recently The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future. Follow him on Twitter @ccwhip

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Hill

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon