Biden’s Former Covid Czar Steps Up to Run the Show

Biden’s Former Covid Czar Steps Up to Run the Show

Biden’s Former Covid Czar Steps Up to Run the Show

As public health remains an ongoing concern, Biden’s next chief of staff enters his new role with a record of privatization.


Jeff Zients seems to be coming into the role of White House chief of staff out of central casting. At a moment of economic uncertainty, the former private equity executive radiates can-do confidence. As the Covid pandemic drags on through the winter, Zients can cite his last résumé entry—Covid czar for the first year and half of the Biden administration—as another high-profile exercise in building public confidence and managing public expectations. Perhaps most crucially, Zients can draw on his private-sector bona fides to ensure the major legislative victories of the Biden White House are secured and translated into palpable gains for ordinary Americans in the run-up to a prospective Biden bid for reelection in 2024. At the same time, Zients’s critics say that his record of equivocal deal-cutting has been a serious liability throughout his career in both the private and public sector.

“The essential precondition for a successful reelection, and a successful first term, is a successful economy,” says Reed Hundt, the former head of the Federal Communications Commission for President Barack Obama and a colleague of Zients’s when he was acting director for the Office of Management and Budget. The historic outlays for federal spending in landmark bills such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law now need to be implemented across the economy—with clear and tangible results to show for them. “This money should cause the greatest amount of private-sector leverage for climate initiatives,” says Hundt, who has founded the Coalition for Green Capital to channel such investments. “Then the tax cuts need to be leveraged to create the greatest private-sector investment.” For Hundt’s money, Zients is tailor-made for the job. “It’s critical to have, at the White House level, people who can make complex things simple—who can get the government part of this equation done. You’ve got [White House senior adviser] John Podesta on the climate side, and for the totality of everything, you’ve got Jeff Zients. I think it’s a great plan. No one is looking to make a chief of staff run an election, but he’s who you need if you want administrative excellence and efficiency.”

But the job of pragmatist market-minded enforcer has been the Democrats’ ideal-type description of the chief of staff position since the Obama administration. That presidency came into office amid a crushing global economic downturn, and made it an early priority to calm the distinctly unquiet animal spirits of the investment economy. Three of Obama’s four chiefs of staff came out of the investment banking world, and the economic policy directives coming from the Obama Oval Office bore the clear stamp of that birthright. During that time, Zients helped—in tandem with then–Vice President Joe Biden—formulate the White House response to the congressional showdown over the looming “fiscal cliff,” i.e., the moment when the George W. Bush tax cuts of 2001 were slated to expire. The Republican Congress demanded stiff reductions in government expenditures to offset expected revenue declines—or else a new extension of the cuts. In the end, they wound up winning on both fronts, thanks to the alleged executive sangfroid of conflict managers like Zients. It’s not exactly an inspiring homily of public-minded political management as Congress and the Biden White House gear up for another high-stakes confrontation over the debt ceiling.

Zients’s early successful run as a private equity manager produced a host of market-brokered spinoffs of essential services that resulted in substandard care and regulatory fines, as my Nation colleague Jeet Heer has documented. Economic historian Kyle Edward Williams, author of the forthcoming book Taming the Octopus: The Century-Long Battle Over the Soul of the Corporation, says that the bulk of Zients’s record points to “someone who seems to be failing up. The role that he played in the fiscal cliff episode, there [Obama officials] had a clear win over the Republicans and just handed it over to them, with severe consequences that we’re still seeing. And in his role as Covid czar, we went from getting free Covid tests from the government to there being less and less reliable access.”

The same goes for Covid vaccines and therapeutic treatments such as Paxlovid. Zients has diminished the government’s role in ensuring access and affordability to such critical resources in the face of a devastating public health crisis—with predictably devastating fallout. Within the hothouse political theater of the Beltway, Zients has been widely credited with “turning the pandemic around”—but the real-world import of that transformation courts renewed disaster. “What turning it around seems to mean is a very loud and very performative transition to the private market for the vaccine and therapeutics,” says Beatrice Adler-Bolton, cohost of the podcast Death Panel, which has closely tracked Zients’s tenure as Covid czar. “It’s very clear that Zients is going to have the model of Covid privatization be a priority for him as he moves into this new role.”

Medical professionals trying to manage a concerted public-health response to the pandemic share this trepidation. “I don’t think he understood that he couldn’t come in and make it all better,” says one frontline administrator in Covid preparedness efforts, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about Zients’s record. “If you look at every indicator, from the rate of vaccines to mask wearing, they’ve been in decline” since Zients began managing the Biden White House’s Covid response. And the Zients privatization effort has cleared the path for Big Pharma vaccine makers like Moderna and Pfizer to announce pending plans to market vaccines for $120—a ruinous market intervention at a time when preventive measures such as masking and remote working are waning and new strains of Covid continue to emerge. “Once the federally declared emergency response is over, and the prep act goes away, we’ll see the full commercialization start for the vaccine and therapeutics,” the health administrator says. “This is something Zients was pushing for…. People are worried about the prospect for new strictures on pharmacies [and their] not being able to deliver vaccines and Paxlovid like they have been. It will be the wrong time to take away those accessibilities. We’re really going to be hurting public health.”

Adler-Bolton’s Death Panel cohost Artie Vierkant is blunter: “It’s important to note that this management approach spearheaded the playbook that led to 700,000 Covid deaths on the Biden administration’s watch…. This appointment demonstrates to me that the Biden administration truly does think that the absolute tragedy that Zients oversaw was a major success story. And that should be terrifying.”

The profound divergence between the shambolic-to-lethal on-the-ground pandemic response and the official account of a brisk Covid “turnaround” would again appear to highlight the limitations of applying a box-ticking managerial mindset to the shifting and urgent challenges of sustaining a comprehensive public-health response to a public-health crisis. “There’s this myth that our most significant social and political problems are things that can be fixed with just the right kind of problem solving,” Williams notes. “But when you look at the problem solvers of our age, you wind up with glorified Moneyball types. It’s an impoverished model of democratic leadership.” The bracing truth before us may be that this is the model of executive management that the Democratic Party remains determined to embrace in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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