Who knew the U.S. government has a Chief Performance Officer?
Until the White House announced on Sunday that the president has appointed Jeff Zients to replace Ron Klain –who resigned over the weekend – as the president’s new chief-of-staff, I certainly didn’t. But Zients, a consummate Washington insider, actually held this position in the Obama administration. So it must be real.
No sooner was the world introduced to Zients than the left-of-center outlet The Nation howled that the man is a shill for corporate America and a disaster at the outset. While that condemnation might lead centrists to think Zients is a reasonable choice, it’s also enough to get the curious among us wondering who this guy is and from where he sprung.
Turns out that without much fanfare, Zients solved the COVID-19 crisis in his most recent post as pandemic response “czar.” A nation should know its heroes, and now, thankfully, we will. POLITICO is already calling him “Mr. Fix-It.”
Not unlike Virginia Senator Mark Warner, who became a youthful multi-millionaire by betting on telecoms just after working as an aide to Sen. Chris Dodd on (guess what?) telecom policy, Zients too made Fortune’s “40 under 40” list by accumulating a net worth of $149 million in his 30s, namely through savvy investments.
One of the companies he took public is the Advisory Board Company, which helps network the winners in the health care industry.
Born in the Beltway, Ziets attended the elite St. Albans boys’ school and Duke University. He cut his teeth at Mitt Romney’s Bain and Co., and then built his fortune in the health care and business services advisory world. Much of this, reports suggest, amounted to helping health care companies bill us better.
Former president Barack Obama brought him in to fix the bungled launch of the Obamacare website, which is where he earned his sobriquet.
Washington is a city filled with men and women who know how to go along and get along. In choosing Zients, the Biden White House will now be led by precisely such a man. But a broken administration may be more challenging to fix than a website that hosts a program that didn’t really solve the affordability of health care anyway.
Zients’ hiring will rankle some deep insiders. Domestic policy advisor Susan Rice, another DC insider with an attenuated claim to Portland, Maine as well, was passed over, and this is sure to anger key Obama loyalists. Regardless of this, the bigger challenges include a special counsel investigation, a weak economy, and diminishing public confidence in government.
Often what matters in the Beltway is not what you can actually do, but what people say you can do. In this regard, the new chief-of-staff is already winning. There is one more good omen: in pronouncing the name Zients, remember it rhymes with science. And we all know we can trust the science.