When Jeff Zients took over as White House chief of staff on February 8, 2023, he could be grateful that his predecessor, Ron Klain, left him a smoothly running operation. Under Klain’s watch, the first two years of Biden’s presidency were considerably more successful than anyone could have expected. This was especially true given that Biden faced the headwinds of a turbulent economy, international turmoil from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a polarized polity at home.
Despite having thin majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives, Biden was able to push through major spending increases in the form of the Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (which contained significant environmental spending), staff a much more assertive National Labor Review Board, and get progressive federal judges nominated and confirmed at an impressive pace (undoing the damage done not just by Donald Trump’s court packing but also Barack Obama’s negligence in handling the judicial file).
A big part of Klain’s success came from his ability to work with congressional Democrats: He kept the lines of communication open with both moderates and progressives, giving enough to all sides to keep the Democratic Party united. The midterms, where Democrats defied history by improving in the Senate and losing only narrowly in the House, was a vindication of Klain’s tenure. The results showed that a unified Democratic Party could govern well enough to keep voter confidence—even amid worries about inflation and a European war.
Joe Biden’s decision to replace Klain with Zients was met with skepticism by myself and my colleague Chris Lehmann. As I warned, Zients’s background as a political centrist who ran predatory health insurance companies didn’t bode well for the progressive agenda. The main arguments on Zients’s behalf were based on claims of competence. His managerial expertise, it was argued, should allow him to adeptly implement Biden’s agenda. But as Chris Lehmann noted, these claims of proficiency were belied by Zients’s actual record as Covid czar under Biden, where his penchant for privatization led to dire results.
The past few months have vindicated our worries about whether Zients was up to the job. The hallmark of the new Zients regime at the White House has been the breakdown in communication with congressional Democrats. In two high-profile cases—involving GOP bills on Covid and the right of the city of Washington, D.C., to set crime policy—the White House first indicated disapproval, which led to many House Democrats’ taking politically risky votes against those bills. Then the White House reversed track and indicated it would not oppose those bills or veto them. This led to House Democrats’ feeling that they had been blindsided by the White House. Coupled with this failure of communication has been a marked shift to the right on issues like climate change, immigration, and crime.
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As Axios reported on Thursday, “Relations between Biden and his House allies were strained when senators were told he wouldn’t veto measures overturning D.C.’s crime law and the COVID national emergency after the House voted on them.” As CNN chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju noted on Wednesday, House Democrats felt betrayed by the White House’s leaving them in the lurch on the GOP resolution on Covid, which followed on the heels of a similar communication breakdown involving the GOP’s efforts to nullify the D.C. crime bill. In both cases, Biden had indicated opposition to the bills, encouraging congressional Democrats to vote against them. But when push came to shove, Biden refused to use his veto, which made the Democrats look divided—and left the members who’d followed the White House lead swinging in the wind.
On March 23, Politico reported, “House Democrats are still stewing over Biden’s about-face on a D.C. crime bill that blindsided them, and left vulnerable lawmakers to deal with the political fallout. And within a wider circle of White House allies, Zients’s arrival has sparked complaints that they are cut out of the loop after enjoying direct West Wing access through his predecessor, Ron Klain.” In a diplomatically worded—but clearly critical—comment, Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Politico, “We were looking forward to developing a good relationship with Jeff Zients, but at this point, we’re not in that place yet. So we’re still working on it.” To be sure, not all congressional Democrats, even in the progressive camp, are so wary. Representative Ro Khanna has countered criticism of Zients by saying, “We both know it’s ultimately about the next generation to solve the biggest challenges facing humanity.”
Writing at Slate, Alex Sammon is more pessimistic, seeing Zients’s management style as a return to the anti-progressive playbook habitually deployed by Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. According to Sammon, “The Obama White House, especially under chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, maintained a bitter, often antagonistic relationship toward activist groups, and often froze progressives out of crucial decision-making. The lack of communication between Zients and the party’s left has an eerie familiarity.”
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch also sees Zients as the mastermind behind a dangerous ideological shift: “Supported by a new, more center-right chief of staff in Jeff Zients, the president’s 2024 strategy has come into clear focus: an FDR-style pitch to the middle class on economics—creating jobs, preserving Medicare and Social Security—but rightward policy shifts to fight off Fox News chyrons about the border, urban crime, and gas prices.” The danger in this shift is that Biden will fall between two stools: He’ll alienate progressives, especially younger voters upset at the green-lighting of oil drilling on federal land, without gaining credit from Republicans (who in the polarized environment aren’t likely to won over by any Democrat).
Zients’s tenure is still young, but his strategy already seems to be failing along the lines Sammon and Bunch suggest. According to FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation of approval polls, Biden’s net disapproval went up from 7.1 per cent on March 13 to 10.8 percent on March 31. As Alex Sammon notes, one poll in particular, conducted by AP-NORC, shows Biden’s already meager support among Republicans collapsing from 12 percent to 4 percent. Zients’s strategy of triangulating between Republicans and congressional Democrats isn’t working—even on its own terms.
It’s still too early to give up hope on the Biden presidency. The Democrats have some real advantages. Thanks to GOP overreach on abortion and the party’s embrace of Trumpism, the Democratic base remains fired-up. In special elections this year, Democrats have outperformed their previous margins by an average of nine points.
Fearful of Trump, angered by the ending of the constitutional right to abortion, and genuinely pleased by progressive measures undertaken by Biden such as stimulus spending and student debt relief, grassroots Democrats remain enthusiastic voters. It would take a lot to dampen the fighting spirit of the party. But if anyone can do it, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients can.