Times-Herald (Vallejo)

Chief of staff exerts quiet power holding worst job in Washington

- By Seung Min Kim

It’s been called the worst job in Washington. The gatekeeper to the most powerful leader on earth. The president’s alter ego or the chief javelin catcher.

The job of White House chief of staff is at the fulcrum of the federal government, yet it’s a role that remains largely opaque outside of Washington circles. The newest person to assume the title is Jeff Zients, a longtime Washington hand with a reputation as a managerial whiz who became President Joe Biden’s second chief of staff last week.

Sen. Mitt Romney, RUtah, said the White House chief of staff is a kind of a “chief operating officer of the country.”

“He’s not the biggest problem solver. He shouldn’t have to do the analysis and he’s got all sorts of other people that will do that,” said Romney, who pondered his own chief of staff picks when he was the GOP presidenti­al nominee in 2012. “But he’s got to run the government, and that’s a task which very few chiefs of staff have had real experience in doing.”

So what does a White House chief of staff actually do?

Zients is literally the chief of the West Wing staff, ensuring that trains run on time and that the president is well served by aides. Zients is the one who presents options to the president on any number of executive decisions.

The chief of staff controls access to the president and is charged with turning the administra­tion’s ambitions into reality. The president’s top aide is part of the Cabinet and

must maintain good relationsh­ips with the heads of other agencies to ensure they are all on the same page. The job means juggling countless competing constituen­cies and often being the person who has to say “no” to them.

In a 2005 Washington Post article, Andy Card, who served President George W. Bush for nearly six years, likened his approach to managing a kitchen. Top priority items were on the front and back burners of the stove and longer-term tasks got stashed into the freezer.

“I’ve described it as a wind tunnel,” said Mack McLarty, who was President Bill Clinton’s first chief of staff. McLarty recalled that as he was preparing to assume the role, he was told by Howard Baker, chief of staff in President Ronald Reagan’s second term, that there was no worse job in the nation’s capital.

During his first 10 days on the job, Zients has had to handle long-planned White House priorities ( a planned trip to Poland to mark one year since Russia invaded Ukraine) and unexpected challenges ( multiple unidentifi­ed objects shot down from the sky). All throughout, Zients’ chief objective as the president prepares for a likely reelection campaign is to seamlessly implement several landmark bills that Biden signed into law in his first two years.

“As a team, our approach to delivering results for the American people will be straightfo­rward,” Zients wrote in a note to White House aides on his first day as chief of staff. “We must aggressive­ly and equitably implement the President’s policies, ensure that Americans know how to access these benefits and clearly communicat­e what we have accomplish­ed on behalf of ALL Americans.”

The new chief of staff, who was an initial investor in a Washington bagel shop, immediatel­y resurrecte­d an old tradition from his previous stint in the White House: Bagel Wednesdays.

Those who have been a White House chief of staff, as well as those who have studied them, can point to several traits that are key to success: experience serving in previous administra­tions, an intimate familiarit­y with Capitol Hill, managerial acumen and political shrewdness. Also: a temperamen­t that doesn’t gyrate with the whims of a news cycle — not to mention a close, personal relationsh­ip with the president.

Past chiefs of staff with that precise collection of characteri­stics, according to Chris Whipple, who wrote extensivel­y on the role for “The Gatekeeper­s,” include James Baker, Reagan’s first chief of staff; Leon Panetta, Clinton’s second chief of staff; and Ron Klain, who recently exited the White House after serving as Biden’s chief of staff his first two years.

“Every president learns — sometimes the hard way — that he cannot govern effectivel­y without empowering a White House chief of staff as first among equals in the West Wing to execute his agenda and to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear,” said Whipple, who spent extensive time with Klain for his latest book, “The Fight of His Life.”

Panetta, who would go on to serve as CIA director and defense secretary under President Barack Obama, agreed.

“I think the success or failure of any chief of staff is going to be very dependent on the relationsh­ip that that individual has with the president,” Panetta said in an interview. “In order for any chief of staff to do his job, he absolutely has to have the trust of the president of the United States, and the two of them have to be able to trust one another.”

 ?? SUSAN WALSH — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE ?? Incoming White House chief of staff Jeff Zients attends an event with President Joe Biden to thank outgoing White House chief of staff Ron Klain in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 1.
SUSAN WALSH — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE Incoming White House chief of staff Jeff Zients attends an event with President Joe Biden to thank outgoing White House chief of staff Ron Klain in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 1.

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