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Ron Klain's Record: How Biden's Chief Of Staff Is Keeping The Trains Running

Ron Klain, pictured in March 2020, is President Biden's chief of staff and comes to the role particularly qualified.
Ron Klain, pictured in March 2020, is President Biden's chief of staff and comes to the role particularly qualified.

Joe Biden ran on competence and experience, and he chose a chief of staff known for both: Ron Klain.

"We're seeing a functioning White House. Go figure," says Chris Whipple, who wrote The Gatekeepers, a book about White House chiefs of staff. "That's a tribute to Klain."

In the first 49 days of the administration, Klain has had a big win and also a notable loss, but he entered the role with broad experience and a good relationship with the president.

Taking the win

The coronavirus relief bill passed on a party-line vote — not exactly what Biden wanted — but the Democrats' tiny majority stayed remarkably intact.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins was part of the brief and ultimately fruitless negotiations with Biden and Klain. But Collins is not criticizing the president. She told reporters last month, "He was very attentive, gracious, into the details. There was a great discussion."

In those bipartisan discussions, Klain played a silent but useful role — although not one that made Collins very happy. "Ron was shaking his head in the back of the room the whole time, which is not exactly an encouraging sign," she said.

In this case, Klain absorbed the criticism that senators like Collins are not willing to give a president they know and like — and whose approval ratings are in the high 50s.

In the fight for the relief bill, Klain applied lessons learned the hard way from his experience with the Obama stimulus bill:

  • Don't wait around too long for Republicans to come your way, and
  • Remember to take a victory lap.
  • Starting this week, Klain will be making sure that short of presenting a Publishers Clearing House-sized check to every eligible American, Biden will tell people exactly what kind of help they're getting from their government.

    President Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a pandemic relief package, on Thursday.
    Doug Mills/Pool / Getty Images
    President Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a pandemic relief package, on Thursday.

    A lesson on loyalty

    If the relief bill was an early success, Klain also had a big miss. Neera Tanden withdrew from consideration for budget director as it became clear the Senate didn't have the votes to confirm her, but Klain made sure to send the message that the Biden White House would never abandon its nominees.

    Before Tanden withdrew, Klain told MSNBC, "If Neera Tanden is not confirmed, she will not become the budget director. We will find some other place for her to serve the administration that doesn't require Senate confirmation."

    Translation: In the Biden White House, loyalty is a two-way street.

    So far Klain has kept everyone rowing in the same direction, according to Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director.

    "He's a very hands-on leader," Bedingfield says, "particularly in this time when we're in the time of COVID, when we're more isolated than we would otherwise be as a team. He's very present. He's very available."

    "Ron knows that"

    Klain's abilities come from a lifetime of experience. Whipple notes that Klain is "uniquely well-prepared for this job." He was chief of staff to two vice presidents and served as former President Barack Obama's Ebola czar and as a top Senate staffer.

    "Most important," Whipple says, Klain came in "having a strong relationship with Joe Biden, but not being a very close friend."

    Klain sits in the Oval Office surrounded by journalists with then-President Barack Obama and national security adviser Susan Rice in October 2014.
    Jacquelyn Martin / AP
    Klain sits in the Oval Office surrounded by journalists with then-President Barack Obama and national security adviser Susan Rice in October 2014.

    Not being the president's buddy is really important, says Whipple, because the chief of staff sometimes has to be the bearer of bad news. "You also have to be able to walk into the Oval Office," says Whipple, "close the door and tell the president what he doesn't want to hear. That was a complete failure on the part of Donald Trump's four chiefs, none of whom was able to do that."

    Klain has known Biden forever. He was an intern in Biden's Senate office, later his chief of staff, the same role he served in for former Vice President Al Gore. Klain oversaw the execution of the Obama stimulus plan, and he's worked in every modern Democratic presidential campaign.

    Elaine Kamarck, who wrote the book Why Presidents Fail and worked with Klain in the Clinton White House, says, "Presidential leadership is unique, because it is the intersection of policy and politics, and Ron understands that better than I think anybody that I've ever met, who wasn't actually the president himself."

    The challenges ahead

    Unlike his boss, Klain uses Twitter — a lot. His feed is a running commentary on White House achievements (no surprise there). But it's also a window into what Klain and Biden think is important. That's the sign of a skilled multitasker, says Whipple, who points out that most chiefs of staff don't even have time to keep a diary.

    But even for a chief of staff with Klain's versatility, the pressures are about to get even more intense as Biden turns his attention from the emergency COVID-19 relief bill to an agenda he believes could transform the country — and determine his legacy. He wants to pass bills on immigration, voting rights and a giant infrastructure package.

    Whipple says the stakes could not be higher. "What's on the line is not just the Biden agenda, but it's the whole idea that governments can get things done," he says. "Biden doesn't have a lot of time to show that the government can fix these fundamental problems, and that's a huge challenge for any chief of staff and for any president."

    Passing a $1.9 trillion bill through a 50-50 Senate and a razor-thin majority in the House was hard enough. The next chapter for Klain and Biden will be even harder.

    NPR Washington Desk intern Claire Oby contributed to this report.

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