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Biden chooses a White House chief who 'matches this moment'

In the midst of an economic crisis brought on by a global pandemic, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE has chosen as his chief of staff a longtime ally who has experience managing both a massive stimulus package to revive a moribund economy and the government response to a public health catastrophe.

Ron Klain, 59, has been a close member of Biden’s inner circle for more than 30 years, and a top adviser to every Democratic president and presidential nominee since the 1990s. Now, as he ascends to the top rungs of government, he will face a set of crises almost uniquely suited to his expertise.

“He has spent his whole life getting ready for this moment,” said Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (D-Mass.), for whom Klain worked in the U.S. House. “Ron Klain is a man who matches this moment in terms of the background, the experience and the wisdom we’re going to need.”

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Though Klain has advised many of the Democratic Party’s senior leaders, he has always been close to Biden, beginning in 1988 when he worked as a speechwriter on Biden’s first presidential campaign. 

He has served as a chief of staff to former Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreKey McConnell ally: Biden should get access to transition resources CNN acquires Joe Biden documentary 'President in Waiting' Former GSA chief: 'Clear' that Biden should be recognized as president-elect MORE, then as the chief counsel leading Gore’s legal strategy during the 2000 recount — a role that landed him on the silver screen, portrayed by Kevin Spacey. When Biden took office as former President Obama’s vice president, he brought Klain back to the White House for a second tenure as his chief of staff.

As the economy cratered during the transition between administrations, Obama delegated the implementation of the recovery package to his vice president and to Klain. The administration was conscious that doling out so much money so quickly could lead to fraud and abuse, and the attending disastrous headlines.

But Klain, who keeps a notecard of each day’s to-do list tucked in an inside pocket of his suit jacket, managed to keep the money directed to legitimate companies. While conservatives complained about investments in the solar panel maker Solyndra, which went bankrupt, no substantial allegations of misspending surfaced — though one former ally recalls having to speak sharply to a government bureaucrat who spent $25,000 on a suit for the agency’s mascot.

“The Republicans were constantly throwing roadblocks, suggesting that we were doing stupid things,” said Edward DeSeve, whom Klain hired to help manage the recovery package. “Ron would field the incoming.”

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This story is based on interviews with half a dozen figures who have worked with Klain over the past three decades. Klain himself did not respond to an interview request.

Klain was a finalist to take over as Obama’s chief of staff in 2013, at the beginning of Obama’s second term. That job went to Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughFauci says he has not talked to Biden: He doesn't want to 'put me in a compromised position' Biden chooses a White House chief who 'matches this moment' The swamp wasn't drained — it expanded MORE, who helped bring Klain back into the administration a year later to manage the American response to the worst outbreak of the Ebola virus in modern history in three impoverished West African countries. 

Klain had no experience managing a public health crisis or with the Ebola virus. But he was an expert in the machinations of a leviathan government, and how to work its levers to speed implementation of White House decisions that needed to be executed immediately.

“There was an implicit recognition that there were a lot of hard policy choices to be made, and that the pace of that decision-making needed to speed up,” Klain said in an interview for a book recounting the American response to the crisis.

For six months, Klain and his small team worked out of a prime office suite in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building overlooking the White House. He managed sometimes warring factions of America’s crisis management infrastructure, from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to help bring the virus under control overseas and to prepare the nation’s hospitals for a domestic outbreak that never materialized.

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“He came in and got it exactly right. He got all of government working together in a concerted way,” said Tom Frieden, who ran the CDC during the Obama years. “He never overstepped his role, and was always deferential to public health and science.”

A president’s choice of a top aide can speak volumes about the person who made the decision. Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, echoed his boss’s pointed focus on the issue at hand — some who sat in on Emanuel’s meetings with senior staffers reported being nervous as he demanded quick and precise reports. 

Biden’s chief of staff, serving a vice president who bases his approach to politics on the personal relationships with others in government, took another approach.

“Ron Klain was very different. Ron was collegial. The staff meetings were much lighter and more family-like,” DeSeve said. “But the objectives were always right there.”

Klain will serve at a time when his party is riven by divisions between establishment moderates — like Biden — and ascendant progressives who may be skeptical of the new administration. But Klain has taken care to build bridges to the party’s progressive wing; several progressive activists who backed more liberal contenders in the Democratic primaries this year pointed to his work on clean energy measures. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenKamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach No, the government cannot seize, break or 'bypass' pharmaceutical patents — even for COVID-19 MORE (D-Mass.) called Klain a “superb choice” to manage the White House.

A chief of staff must manage the information flow into and out of the Oval Office, a task that can overwhelm all but the most organized administrations. No easy decisions make their way to a president’s desk, and petty disputes or a lack of focus can throw an entire White House off its charted course.

“It’s a continual day of putting out fires, and he would be the fire chief of all time,” said Moe Vela, who worked for Klain under both Gore and Biden. “His ability to multitask is second to none, something so vital in the role of a chief of staff.”

During the 2020 campaign, Klain has reprised a role he often plays for Democratic presidential nominees, as debate coach. Klain, who taught a class on political debate at his alma mater Georgetown, helped Obama, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFederal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work Biden soars as leader of the free world Intercept DC bureau chief says Biden picks are 'same people' from Obama years MORE and Biden prepare for their turns under the klieg lights. 

When he moves into the spacious office just down the hall from Biden’s new digs in January, Klain will take on a different role, in a spotlight of his own.

“He understands the machinations of the White House. He knows the White House in and out,” Vela said. “Right guy, right time.”