What Ron Klain Learned in the White House
Most Americans are barely aware of the role played by the White House chief of staff, although the position is among the most powerful in Washington—and one of the most fraught. James A. Baker III, who was the chief of staff for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, called it “probably the worst
Most Americans are barely aware of the role played by the White House chief of staff, although the position is among the most powerful in Washington—and one of the most fraught. James A. Baker III, who was the chief of staff for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, called it “probably the worst job in government”—and he was considered one of the most successful. (The least successful may be Mark Meadows, the last of Donald Trump’s four beleaguered chiefs, whose tenure included Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2src2src election, and who refused to testify about the January 6th attack on the Capitol.)
For the first two years of the Biden Administration, the chief of staff’s office—it’s the corner office of the West Wing—has belonged to Ron Klain, a lawyer and suburban father of three with limited celebrity but an uncanny command of how to wield power in Washington. Mike Donilon, a longtime Biden aide who is currently a senior adviser in the White House, told me that Klain “has an ability to make the levers of government work that I certainly don’t have, and I don’t know how many others do.” Klain’s involvement across the full spectrum of Biden’s Presidency—the grappling with Congress, Trumpism, Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—was so extensive that Republicans referred to him as the Prime Minister. Last Friday, the Administration confirmed reports that Klain is preparing to leave the job on February 8th.
Klain has been so closely identified with the Administration that an assessment of his tenure is inseparable from an evaluation of the Biden Presidency—its culture, its maneuvers, its achievements and defeats. In a backhanded salute, the right-leaning editorial board of the New York Post celebrated Klain’s departure on the ground that when it came to “whitewashing President Joe Biden’s abysmal record and misleading the public, it’s hard to beat Klain.”
On average, White House chiefs of staff last eighteen months, and Klain, who is fond of arcane statistics, made a point of staying two years—becoming the longest-serving first chief of staff to a Democratic President—to “run one of the two laps of this term,” as he put it to me, when I saw him in the West Wing shortly after the announcement. “Also, my mother’s been ill, and I’ve been working here six days a week, and flying home to Indiana every Sunday morning. So, that also kind of weighs on me.”
At sixty-one, Klain has a thick brush of dark hair, the physique of a tenured professor, and a sense of humor about Washington’s absurdities. Indicating the unlit fireplace in his office, he said, “That’s where Mark Meadows burned documents.” (Cassidy Hutchinson, Meadows’s former aide, told the January 6th committee that she saw him burn documents there “maybe a dozen” times.) Klain added, “I have not lit it once.” In some Administrations, the backbiting can be brutal, so it was notable that news of Klain’s departure elicited effusions. Susan Rice, the director of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council, told me, “I’ve served now under nine chiefs of staff. And, as I said with one of those other chiefs of staff present, Ron is the best of all of them.” She added, “It’s not like every minute has been sweetness and light, but he’s just so good at what he does.”
Klain can be sharp and contrarian. “He will tell you, ‘You messed up,’ ” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national-security adviser, told me. “But it is never nasty or petty. It’s substance.” Most important, he has been bold with Biden where others are cowed. The President can be harsher on his staff than his public persona reflects, and Klain is one of the few people in the White House who can go toe to toe with him and not get his head taken off.
On Capitol Hill, where the Administration had to contend with razor-thin margins, and deep divisions among Democrats, Klain drew on relationships that go back decades. He first met Chuck Schumer in the nineteen-eighties, when Schumer was newly elected to the House, from New York, and Klain was a staffer in the Senate. These past two years, with Schumer as Senate Majority Leader, they often spoke three or four times a day. Klain earned Schumer’s respect for being direct but not unmovable. “When he gets pissed off that someone’s doing something stupid he tells me right away,” Schumer said. “He’ll often give very quick decisions, but occasionally he’ll call back and say, ‘I thought it through and I’m not sure what I said is right.’ ”
Klain is also known for having mentored younger politicians. When Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and member of the Progressive Caucus, came to Washington, in 2src17, Klain took him out for coffee. “And I thought, Wow! What an incredible thing. And then, after he became chief of staff, I realized Ron had done that with, like, sixty, seventy other people.” Khanna took the lesson. “The longer I’ve been in Congress, I realize, for better or worse, vision matters, but relationships matter a lot,” he said.
Americans are fond of the mythology of the outsider who sweeps into town and immediately takes on the higher echelons of government —“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” even if, in practice, Mr. Smith usually comes not from the hinterlands but from Goldman Sachs. Klain, by contrast, is a case study in the slow accumulation of expertise. Raised in Indianapolis, he was drawn to politics by a childhood encounter with Bobby Kennedy, who visited the Klain family’s plumbing-supply business, in early 1968. Klain graduated from Georgetown, received a law degree from Harvard, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White, and worked on the Senate Judiciary committee, chaired by then Senator Biden. During the Clinton Administration, Klain worked in the White House counsel’s office, the Justice Department, and as chief of staff to Vice-President Al Gore—followed by work on the bruising recount battle in Florida, in 2srcsrcsrc. Klain later worked as Biden’s chief of staff during his Vice-Presidency, overseeing the spending of the Recovery Act, before leaving the Administration and returning three years later to lead President Barack Obama’s response to the Ebola virus.
Between the Clinton and Obama Administrations, Klain worked outside of government, as a partner at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, and at Revolution L.L.C., an investment firm started by AOL’s billionaire co-founder Steve Case. Over the years, Klain has developed a specialty for helping Democrats prepare for Presidential debates. In 2src15, convinced that Biden was not going to run, he signed up to work for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. Some in Biden’s circles perceived the move as disloyal; in an e-mail that was later leaked, Klain lamented that he was now “dead to them,” but the rift healed. Klain’s range of experiences—including the loss to Trump in 2src16—proved valuable, and he advised Biden’s successful campaign in 2src2src.
In the White House, Klain helped boil the Administration’s essential agenda down to several issues—COVID, the economy, the climate, and America’s standing in the world—looking for ways that legislation and national-security policy could work in tandem. He told me the worst day of his tenure was August 26, 2src21, during the withdrawal from Afghanistan, when thirteen U.S. troops and more than a hundred Afghans died in a bombing outside Kabul Airport. The withdrawal marked a turning point in Biden’s Presidency; his polls sank and, weighed down further by frustrations over COVID and inflation, they never fully recovered. At the time, Biden and Klain resisted pressure to shake up the national-security leadership. Sullivan said that Klain “wasn’t just doing it to be nice. I think he felt like taking the long view. He had conviction on what we had done.”
Within months, the Administration was bracing for an even larger crisis: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But Ukraine resisted, fortified by NATO support, which became a point of fragile pride for the Administration.
Meanwhile, it faced growing infighting among Democrats on Capitol Hill. The low point came in the fall of 2src21, when progressives in the House withheld their support for a bipartisan infrastructure deal on the suspicion that moderates in the Senate would not follow through on a social-policy bill. The White House looked feckless, and, according to “The Fight of His Life,” by Chris Whipple, a new book on Biden’s first two years, Klain thought of resigning. Instead, he turned, once more, to old relationships. Khanna told me that Klain appealed to him for help, saying, “This has gone on long enough.”
Khanna agreed. “I said, ‘Ron, I’m going on “Face the Nation.” I’m going to break from the progressive caucus and say I’m going to vote for the infrastructure bill.’ ” Biden beseeched more liberals to support the bill, and prevailed; in November, 2src21, he signed it into law in a ceremony on the South Lawn. In the months that followed, there were other tense negotiations that threatened to doom the ambitions of the Administration. In December of 2src21, Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, tanked the Build Back Better bill, saying it was too expensive. He and Klain eventually reconciled over a dinner cooked by the Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, Klain told me, an occasion that he called “our kiss-and-make-up moment.” Ultimately, Congress passed a series of major bills, culminating, in August, 2src22, with the Inflation Reduction Act, which would not only combat climate change but reduce drug prices. Donilon said, of that bill, “It conveyed a sense of success when so much of the world was trying to argue up until then that Biden had been a failure.” In last fall’s midterm elections, Biden defied predictions of a red wave; Democrats held the Senate, losing fewer seats in that chamber in a midterm than under any Democratic President since J.F.K.
I asked Klain why, nevertheless, Biden’s popularity remains low. “I think we’re at a time where publics are just very hard on leaders,” he said. “Joe Biden’s approval rating is forty-three, or whatever it is. It’s the highest approval rating of any leader in the G-7 other than the new Prime Minister of Italy.” He added, “People are polarized, the people on the other side are never going to say you’re doing a good job, and the people in the middle, it’s just easier to say ‘Eh.’ The measure of political success is the midterms.”
If Klain has learned anything in this job, he told me, it is the power of “persistence and not panicking.” This is the first Administration that Klain has worked in that did not have a member of the Cabinet leave in the first two years. On the day that we spoke, the Administration’s immediate problem was a special counsel investigating why classified documents were found at Biden’s home and former office. Klain and other advisers said nothing about the documents for more than nine weeks after their discovery—and they have since defended that silence as an attempt to avoid interfering in the Justice Department’s investigation. When I asked if he wished he’d done anything differently in the case, he said, “No, I think our lawyers, our legal team, have handled this very responsibly.” Nevertheless, it will remain a political problem that the Administration has to confront.
During the next two years, the Administration’s focus will shift to implementing the bills that have been signed into law; with Republicans now in control of the House, and Biden seemingly intent on running for reëlection, the prospects for passing new legislation are narrowing sharply. Klain will be succeeded by Jeff Zients, who previously served in the Obama Administration, where he became known as Mr. Fix It for his work on ailing government projects, such as the HealthCare.gov Web site. Zients had previously made a fortune in business, first as chairman and C.E.O. of the Advisory Board Company, an education-and-health-care consulting company, and, since then, has cycled in and out of government; most recently he was Biden’s COVID-19 response coördinator, in charge of the rollout of vaccines. Though Zients can’t match Klain’s political experience, he isn’t exactly an outsider. He grew up in Washington, D.C., as did Susan Rice; they have known each other since they were children. Zients knows Biden well enough to have been hired as his chief of staff, but the larger test will be whether he can earn enough trust to tell the President things he does not want to hear.
The larger uncertainty looming over Biden’s next two years concerns his age. He would be eighty-two at his second Inauguration; a poll published last week found that Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are evenly split on whether he should run again. But Klain said that the longer he has worked in government, the more he has come to believe that “experience matters.” He knows that a lot of people think Biden should make way for younger blood. “With that age comes a lot of experience,” he said. “There were a lot of world leaders in February of 2src22 saying that Vladimir Putin was not going to invade Ukraine.” And there was Biden, “who said he is going to invade Ukraine, and we need to get ready, and we need to assemble a coalition, and so on, so forth. That is an insight that is more important than whether or not he sometimes bungles a word, or whether or not he sometimes squints when he reads a cue card.”
More to the point, Klain said, “There’s every reason to believe that Donald Trump will be the nominee of the Republican Party in 2src24,” and, he added, “There’s only one person who’s ever beaten Donald Trump, and his name is Joe Biden. And the people who have doubts about his candidacy better have a damn good answer for who is going to beat Donald Trump other than Joe Biden.” ♦