This article originally appeared in The American Prospect. Read the article on the original website.
During the Biden transition, Denis McDonough, Barack Obama’s chief of staff and President Biden’s current secretary of veterans affairs, was bullish on the new administration’s soon-to-be COVID czar. He described Jeffrey Zients, then a member of the transition team, to The New York Times as “the ultimate firefighter … He runs into the burning buildings. He doesn’t ask why. He doesn’t ask when. He doesn’t ask who’s going with him.”
One year later, McDonough’s description has proven correct, for all the wrong reasons.
A year into his role as White House coronavirus response coordinator—essentially the logistics man for federal COVID-19 policy implementation, including coordinating federal supply chains for masks, tests, and other key equipment—the country faces death tolls that Biden promised on the campaign trail would never exist under his administration. Amid an entirely predictable viral mutation and a winter surge, Zients has failed to provide the materials necessary to improve the U.S. response, or the guidance necessary to keep the pandemic under control. He’s proven himself not up to the task, and Biden should relieve him of his duties.
Zients’s most important power as COVID czar is his ability to invoke the Defense Production Act, a power Biden delegated to Zients personally via executive order, as my colleague Timi Iwayemi documented last month. The DPA allows the president to order the nation’s private sector to produce specific materials necessary for national safety, and has been used by both Trump and Biden for COVID-related materials before.
With DPA powers legally entrusted to Zients, a mass mobilization unseen since the Second World War was potentially at his fingertips. He could have spent the year mobilizing against a shared enemy in the virus, stockpiling enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and pharmaceutical products to protect the public. But Zients has for the most part abdicated this responsibility.
Most damning among Zients’s failures is his refusal to allocate resources to aid vaccination efforts abroad. As Vice News reported this week, Tito’s Vodka has donated more toward efforts to mass-produce an open-source, global vaccine than the White House. Global vaccine distribution is not only a humanitarian requirement, but also a critical step to preventing the development of new variants. But doing so would have required angering powerful forces in corporate America.
In an economy in which so many of the highest-valued corporations exist by exploiting flaws in our intellectual-property system (e.g., Microsoft, Apple, Big Pharma, Disney), forcing Moderna to share their vaccine recipe, and compelling mass production sites across the world, would have engendered corporate backlash. If the government cast aside patents for COVID vaccines, could software or movies be next? Following this corporate line of thought, and disregarding the necessity of vaccinating the world, Zients has not pushed domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity in this direction. And while President Biden endorsed waiving intellectual-property rights on vaccines last April, there’s been no movement since on that front.
The DPA is not only necessary to addressing catastrophic shortfalls of vaccine across the globe but could have been used to manufacture masks and tests with wartime vigor, distributing them quickly and equitably to the American populace. For example, regardless of the debate raging over in-person schooling, it is incontestable that schools must have easy access to high-quality masks and tests to minimize risks. We have a strategic reserve of petroleum—why not of PPE?
Somehow, the imperative to distribute this critical equipment slipped through the cracks. As Vanity Fair reported last month, actual epidemiologists pleaded with the Biden COVID team to ramp up rapid-test production and distribution back in October, to head off needless infection and death at December family gatherings. The Biden team sloughed them off—and given the nature of the request, that almost certainly means Zients was responsible for the rejection. The result of this oversight has been twisting vaccine testing lines that recall the Depression of the ’30s instead of the wartime mobilization of the ’40s. Months later, after Americans pilloried Biden spokesperson Jen Psaki for laughing off the suggestion of mailing COVID tests to every American, Biden said he wished he had thought of the idea sooner.
Zients’s failures are not only a result of his passive refusal to use the immense powers at his disposal to combat the crisis. They are also the result of intentional actions to head off effective strategies. Zients instructed Republican Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, for example, against enacting a mask mandate, despite the policy’s high favorability and effectiveness.
ZIENTS ISN’T A PUBLIC-HEALTH EXPERT: He’s a former corporate executive whose track record bolsters the worst possible impulses for a Biden appointee in command of the federal government’s resources. He cut his teeth at Bain & Co., the consulting firm that works closely with the private equity industry, which has erased pensions and health benefits for tens of thousands over decades of leveraged buyouts. There, he made a name for himself running a pair of management consultancies, where he advised CEOs to be blunt with their employees: “The social contract is never coming back, and your employees know it.”
Another Obama-era grifter, Rahm Emanuel, hit on the key to Zients’s success when he glowingly described him and his cohort (including Vivek Kundra and Aneesh Chopra) as “the McKinsey boys” for their slash-and-burn mentality toward government bureaucracy and spending under the auspices of managerial sagacity.
Zients’s personal playbook has long revolved around parachuting into high-profile operational quagmires, hiring experienced software engineers, and then grandstanding over their work. Zients first claimed credit for saving Obama’s “Cash for Clunkers” website—paying Oracle even more money to fix a problem they themselves created—and then again for hiring engineers to fix the catastrophic HealthCare.gov rollout. As engineers fixed protocols behind the scenes, Zients brought them pie, watched them work, then placed a national cover story celebrating his genius.
Meanwhile, negative coverage of Zients has been handily dealt with. Before his appointment to the Biden administration, his Wikipedia page was scrubbed of damaging details by political consultancy Saguaro Strategies.
The conjurers of the Zients charm offensive include the Washington Post Editorial Board (a paper his friend Donald Graham once helped run), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, David Bradley (Zients’s former business partner, Atlantic Media partner, and National Journal owner), and Obama officials like Emanuel and McDonough.
But overcoming the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic has demanded far more complexity than increasing server capacity and maintaining close connections to the fourth estate. Zients’s only public-health experience before his appointment was as CEO of Cranemere, a Berkshire Hathaway–style investment firm, where he personally secured a majority stake in an anesthesia firm that engaged in the same kind of surprise billing the administration is now thankfully moving to ban.
Zients has failed to listen to the public-health experts urging him to do anything other than warn unvaccinated Americans about their impending doom. “For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm,” Zients said at a December press conference. The comment quickly drew backlash from both the left and the right.
Having failed to enact effective policy outside of vaccine production, Zients has left the virus to run its course, charging ahead with a domestic strategy based on little more than hope that enough people will take vaccines to resolve the nation’s ongoing nightmare. With the highly mutated omicron variant tearing through the population and not enough Americans receiving booster shots that ensure full protections, Zients and the White House COVID team continue to ignore America’s new reality.
As the “Mr. Fix-It” moniker deepens in irony with each passing day, Zients continues to broadcast spite and doom toward not only the unvaccinated, but also critical Biden allies like teachers unions, students, the disabled, and a vast workforce that, thanks to revised CDC quarantine guidelines, are being forced back to work under life-threatening conditions. “This is not a moment to panic because we know how to protect people and we have the tools to do it,” Zients told reporters in December. “But we need the American people to do their part to protect themselves, their children, and their communities.”
On Tuesday, reports emerged that the Biden administration may finally be heeding a bipartisan call to distribute high-grade respirators to hospitals. Even Donald Trump’s former surgeon general joined in the call for a basic mitigation measure. As Politico reported this week, Zients was unconvinced, and was still “vetting” the idea.
In 2020, the Washington Post Editorial Board rejected the Revolving Door Project’s concerns over Zients’s background, claiming that “Mr. Biden needs to resist ideological pressure to exclude people with business backgrounds, and think instead about how he can maximize input from people with relevant experience in every sense of the term.” Jeff Zients has now demonstrated just how irrelevant his experience is. It’s now time for Biden to resist the ideological pressure to maintain appointees with strong business connections and weak policy records. It’s time to fire Jeff Zients.