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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | January 27, 2023

The Myth Of Jeffrey Zients

Executive BranchRevolving Door
The Myth Of Jeffrey Zients

This article first appeared in The American Prospect. Read it on the original website.

On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that Jeffrey Zients would replace Ron Klain as White House chief of staff. Democratic Party insiders unsurprisingly heaped praise on the decision. Biden confidant and former Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Mark Gitenstein called Zients “the best manager that I’ve ever worked with.” Pod Save America, perhaps the Biden administration’s most supportive media organ, assured the Democratic faithful that any skeptics weren’t being fair. “I generally have a problem with criticism that is only about someone’s past and résumé, and not of the actual decisions and policies they have implemented during their time in government,” said Jon Favreau, who overlapped with Zients in the Obama administration.

Favreau’s claim is bizarre for several reasons. For one, how is anyone supposed to judge who Zients is, if not by his history? If a person’s life story doesn’t tell us who they are, all that’s left is the personal assurances of Zients’s former colleagues, all of whom have every political incentive to make him, and the president, look good.

Moreover, judging Zients by “the actual decisions and policies [he] implemented during [his] time in government” does not paint a flattering picture either. I happen to know a lot about Zients’s record in and out of government, and my colleagues and I have written about him several times for this magazine. As Favreau should know, Zients was a leader in implementing many of the Obama administration’s most pro-corporate policies. Zients owes his entire public-policy career to his corporate worldview and connections, which have remained strikingly consistent for over a decade—exactly in keeping with his pre-government history.

This is immensely consequential. Favreau argued that Zients’s job will be “to implement the Biden agenda. He’s not coming in there with some determination to advance some corporate interest. He’s there to serve Joe Biden.” But the White House chief of staff isn’t just an office manager; they often choose who gets face time with the president and which policy options make it to the Resolute desk. This means they have to filter out what political ideas aren’t worth the president’s time, which means they need strong political judgment of their own.

And judgment is formed in part by experience. Zients’s longtime role as a conduit for business leaders, to say nothing of the federal fraud suits his own firms have faced, naturally disincline him toward the sort of crackdowns on corporate abuses that are overwhelmingly popular with the public and would make a strong White House agenda for the next two years of divided government.

Klain was an excellent chief of staff precisely because of his political judgment. He understood not just Biden’s own views, but Biden’s role as the leader of a Democratic Party with ardent progressive and moderate wings, which both needed to be heard out and respected, even when that annoyed both sides.

Zients’s record does not indicate similar political sophistication. It primarily shows a talent for making his fellow elites like him, mostly by saying what they want to hear. If this choice is an indicator of the direction Biden hopes to take the second half of his presidential term, we should all be very concerned for the next two years of policymaking.

JEFFREY ZIENTS’S FIRST JOB OUT OF COLLEGE in 1988 was at Bain & Company, one of the most powerful management consultancies in the country. Like many 20-somethings before and since, Zients “fell in love with Bain’s culture, teamwork … and analytical rigor,” according to a Bain newsletter. Management consultancies like Bain have a lot to answer for in the birth of hyper-financialized capitalism and the attendant explosion of inequality. In the words of Yale legal scholar Daniel Markovits, Bain and its ilk “destroyed the middle class” by giving bosses the confidence, vocabulary, and justifications to eliminate job protections, slash pay, and turn professional life into “an endless, terrible competition.”

After eight years at Bain, Zients joined the Advisory Board, a smaller management consultancy focused on health care companies. Over time, he became the CEO, and spun off part of the company into an interrelated firm called the Corporate Executive Board. Meanwhile, he rubbed elbows with Advisory Board founder David Bradley, who, in 1999, bought Atlantic Media, the publisher of The Atlantic magazine. Factor in Zients’s longtime friendship with Donald Graham of the formerly Washington Post–owning Graham family, and the young multimillionaire had built a small network of powerful friends in elite center-left media.

In a 2006 feature, the Post described the Corporate Executive Board’s business model as essentially asking CEOs for their opinions on business, then repackaging those same ideas back to them in reports and staff trainings. One of these ideas was for companies not to bother establishing any sort of social contract with their workers: “The social contract is never coming back, and your employees know it.” This is an unsurprising recommendation from a Bain alumnus, but quite startling for Biden’s top adviser. Biden has bet his presidency and reputation in part on recreating the New Deal balance of power between labor and capital.

Zients’s talent for selling CEOs’ own ideas back to them made him fabulously wealthy. He was on Forbes’s “40 under 40” list by 2002. By 2004, he was “the designated frontman for a … group of very wealthy men,” who aimed to bring Major League Baseball back to Washington, D.C., including the heads of America Online and Fannie Mae. By 2007, he sat on corporate boards alongside Colin Powell and Carly Fiorina.

But in 2009, Zients got a chance to apply his management consultant ethos to the federal government. Zients became America’s chief performance officer, reportedly because Zients donated to Obama’s campaign, and Obama’s first choice was facing a tax scandal. He had a mandate to “eliminat[e] dozens of government programs shown to be wasteful or ineffective,” in Obama’s words. If this sounds like a Ronald Reagan idea to you, you wouldn’t be the first: In 2012, one chief executive on Obama’s Jobs Council thought Zients was a Republican.

Zients’s job changed several times throughout the Obama presidency, but his functional role was always to be “an ambassador to the business community,” in the words of The Wall Street Journal. He bemoaned in a 2012 Politico op-ed that “[r]arely have we seen departments or agencies downsized, much less eliminated,” and hoped to reorganize the Commerce Department into a “one-stop shop” Department of Business, to help prove Obama was not “a big-government liberal,” according to Reuters. Biden, by contrast, has relished comparisons to Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the archetypal big-government liberals.

In 2012, Zients also issued veto threats to any legislation that didn’t cut spending, as part of the disastrous “fiscal cliff” strategy, a failed plan to compel deficit reduction that sabotaged the Great Recession recovery, and undermined the Democrats’ brand as the defenders of Social Security and Medicare. The fiscal cliff haunts our current debt ceiling standoff. That year, Obama won re-election partly by campaigning against Mitt Romney’s ties to Bain Capital, the private equity firm populated by alumni of Bain & Company, where Zients got his start. Romney is also a Bain & Company alumnus and, unsurprisingly, supports Zients’s current promotion.

By 2015, Zients was cheerleading the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He argued that “[a]t its core, TPP is a massive tax cut for American businesses,” and defended the TPP’s investor-state dispute settlement system—which would have insulated multinational corporations from foreign court proceedings when they break the law—by saying “the U.S. has never lost a case.” This was misleading; the main problem with ISDS is that it lets corporations steamroll poorer governments’ sovereignty, and there was no guarantee that wouldn’t have happened to America as well. (TPP thankfully collapsed in 2016.)

Under Klain, Biden has moved strongly against the sort of corporatist globalization the TPP represented. But Zients’s appointment, alongside rumors that globalization admirer Lael Brainard is moving to the National Economic Council, could portend a reversal of this important pro-labor populist shift. (Note that Zients spent the last few months planning Biden’s post-election reshuffling of the administration.)

Even that doesn’t exhaust Zients’s corporatist record under Obama. He sold acres of public land, often despite local opposition, as part of the deficit hysteria; defended a budget deal that weakened the Dodd-Frank Act; supported an unqualified Wall Streeter for a key Treasury Department job over the objections of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); and took advice from Robert Rubin, the godfather of Democratic neoliberalism, while running the National Economic Council.

My favorite anecdote: Private equity mogul David Rubenstein once asked Zients if businesspeople should just reach out to him personally when they want to lobby on economic policy. Zients smiled. He said that when his employees at Corporate Executive Board were trying to develop a new product, he’d always say to just go ask the customers what they want. Addressing the room full of CEOs and wealthy elites, he said, “You are the customers, all of you as business leaders, in terms of growing the economy.”

What else is there to say?

THERE’S LITTLE REASON TO THINK ZIENTS has had a progressive change of heart since the Obama era. He spent the Trump years running Cranemere Group, a Berkshire Hathaway–style investment firm where he personally closed the deal to buy NorthStar Anesthesia and praised its “best in class patient care” in a press release. NorthStar had a history of surprise medical billing that continued under its new owners, and part of the firm’s strategy was to leave patients without any alternative: NorthStar was also aggressively buying up competitors, contributing to a trend toward regional monopolization in anesthesia services. These “tuck-in acquisitions” continued under Cranemere—a Texas court had to order NorthStar to stop poaching doctors from a rival firm in 2020.

Zients also joined Facebook’s board of directors two months after the Cambridge Analytica scandal became public. He joined the auditing subcommittee that then–Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra would later castigate for doing nothing when the company “flagrantly broke the law even after it was ordered to stop—and that lawbreaking continued for years.” Zients left Facebook in March 2020.

In 2021, Zients joined the Biden administration in arguably the most consequential job of all: COVID-19 czar, the point man for coordinating all of the federal health agencies to rescue America from the pandemic. If ever there was a time for him to prove his managerial bona fides, this was it.

Zients failed miserably. He didn’t boost production of tests or personal protective equipment, but he did personally dissuade Republican Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont from issuing a statewide mask mandate. He did nothing to assert government ownership of the vaccine technologies the government helped develop, allowing Pfizer and Moderna to charge hundreds of dollars worldwide for treatments every human being needs to receive. Experts warned the White House months in advance to expect a surge in December 2021, but Zients did almost nothing to prepare. When the omicron variant hit, lines to get tests stretched across city blocks nationwide, two years into the pandemic.

Incredibly, Zients’s defenders cite his czarship as evidence of his competence. His staff reportedly gave him a blanket with the White House’s COVID-19 plan embroidered on it, since he was so “maniacal about developing a plan and sticking to it,” according to The New York Times. But viruses don’t stick to plans or political timelines. A competent manager in a global crisis needs to be able to adapt, yet the White House’s official narrative of a brisk COVID turnaround has only gotten more out of touch with the hundreds of thousands of deaths on Biden’s watch.

Zients, like the rest of the White House, reconciled this mostly by blaming the unvaccinated. As those lines stretched for blocks in December 2021, he infamously told unvaccinated people “you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.”

What Zients did for pandemic policy as COVID-19 czar—bring the final options to the president’s desk, then implement his decision—he will now do for all policy as chief of staff. It’s possible that he’ll get good tutelage from Klain, be an honest broker to all, and show managerial talents that eluded him in 2021. But it seems unlikely. Looking at the sum of the evidence, Zients’s main talent appears to be doing what the powerful want of him and flattering their egos, not devising or executing successful political, policy, or economic strategies.

Yet most coverage of Zients’s ascent hasn’t bothered to simply look at his record and analyze what worked and what didn’t. Many journalists have just taken Democratic operatives at their word uncritically.

Scouring the record and forming one’s own opinion takes a lot of time, and journalists have to get their stories out while a news item is still fresh. But in aggregate, this deference to obviously biased sources leads to drastic misunderstandings. Nor is this a one-off case: The Prospect’s David Dayen reported last week how House Speaker Kevin McCarthy didn’t actually concede very much to the Freedom Caucus to get his gavel. He reported that by just looking through the public record.

Just because powerful people say Zients is competent, unbiased, and praiseworthy doesn’t mean that he is. As Zients ascends to the highest job in the White House, we’ll need more independent scrutiny of him and the rest of our government than ever.

PHOTO CREDIT: “Jeffrey Zients” by Center for American Progress is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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