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President Biden picks a new chief of staff: Jeff Zients

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden is entering a new, tougher stretch of his presidency with investigations hanging over him, and he will have a new chief of staff to help him through it. Ron Klain, who has been a close aide for years, is leaving the role, and Biden is going to replace him with Jeff Zients. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has this look at the man who will run the White House.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When Biden took office, his biggest challenge - the country's biggest challenge - was the COVID-19 pandemic, and Jeff Zients was the person Biden chose to manage the response.

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JEFF ZIENTS: President Biden is clear. We are at war with this virus, and we're using every resource at our disposal to defeat it.

KEITH: That was Zients in one of his earliest COVID response briefings. Scripted and controlled, he had this same even tone week after week, whether case numbers were spiking or coming down. Dr. Anthony Fauci says Zients had a Herculean task, taking a nascent and disorganized vaccine distribution effort, scaling it up and making it work.

ANTHONY FAUCI: It's really an unprecedented accomplishment, I think.

KEITH: Touring a COVID vaccination site back in April 2021, Biden offered his own endorsement.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: To be a good president, you've got to be smart enough to hire people smarter than you. And that's what I did with Jeff - Mr. Zients, here.

KEITH: To be clear, under his leadership, the COVID response wasn't perfect. The administration prematurely celebrated victory over the pandemic only for new variants to surge. There were testing shortages at key moments. But Zients' tenure was largely seen as successful, and his reward will be quite possibly the hardest job in government; at least that's how former Obama White House official Cecilia Munoz described it.

CECILIA MUNOZ: It's a ferociously difficult job, but he is maybe the most even-keeled person I know. And part of the magic is that there's just no ego investment. He's really all about what he's trying to get done.

KEITH: Munoz worked closely with Zients during the Biden transition and in the Obama administration. When the Obamacare website failed, Zients was brought in as Mr. Fixit. He served as budget director and had a top economic role. Munoz says he took on wonky, unsexy projects because he could make a difference.

MUNOZ: His focus is on, how does this matter to real people, and how do we make sure it gets done really well?

KEITH: So much of being an effective chief of staff is making sure the right people are in the room, knowing how to move the levers of government. Longtime Biden friend Ted Kaufman worked with Zients on the transition. He says his skills are needed now.

TED KAUFMAN: He is one of the best managers that I've ever seen - I mean, not for a long time. He's really very good at managing, and I think that's the main thing you need for a chief of staff at this point.

KEITH: Biden faces a looming fiscal fight with the House Republican majority, plus a raft of investigations from Congress and now a special counsel looking at his handling of classified documents. Big, new bipartisan achievements are unlikely, but Biden spent his first two years getting Congress to pass funds for microchip manufacturing, infrastructure and climate change. And now he needs someone to make sure those programs run smoothly. Kaufman says Biden's likely presidential campaign will depend on it.

KAUFMAN: One of the biggest issues if he runs for president, it will be, is the government functioning?

KEITH: While his resume includes high-level White House jobs, it also includes a lot of time spent in the private sector, including running an investment fund and serving on the Facebook board of directors. That raises red flags for Jeff Hauser, who heads the Revolving Door Project.

JEFF HAUSER: Jeffrey Zients is not just a successful business person. He is somebody who has been involved in many of the industries that the American people are most angry about.

KEITH: He'd like the White House to take the lead in going after corporate America for abuses, and he's not convinced Zients is the right person to do that. Zients' allies say, give him a chance. He's expected to start sometime after Biden's State of the Union address next month.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.