Biden's no-drama White House chief

Biden's no-drama White House chief
© Getty Images

Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE’s first four months have been marked by a frenzy of presidential action — a $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan passed; 133 million Americans vaccinated; 167 million relief checks issued; childhood poverty on track to be cut in half; a Middle Eastern conflict defused. And yet the story of this presidency has so far been nearly devoid of drama.

Where are the White House power struggles and palace intrigue? Why are there no leaks? Where are the internecine battles over policy? The answer is that competence can be boring. (Or soothing, depending on your point of view.) Indeed, Biden’s team has been nearly flawless at executing his agenda and lowering our collective political blood pressure.

And Ron KlainRon KlainThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week White House looks to cool battle with Facebook Texas Democrats are fighting harder than Biden or congressional Democrats MORE, his White House chief of staff, may be — at least at this early stage — the most effective in modern history.

ADVERTISEMENT

The bar has been low lately. Trump and his final, feckless White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsMeadows says Trump World looking to 'move forward in a real way' Trump takes two punches from GOP Watchdog urges Justice to probe Trump, Meadows for attempting to 'weaponize' DOJ MORE were so incompetent they utterly mismanaged — and tried to ignore — a once-in-a-century health crisis, contributing to more than a half million deaths. But even the best White House chiefs have stumbled out of the gate. Consider James A. Baker III, Reagan’s first chief, who was considered the gold standard. His West Wing was Wrestle Mania — with the conservative Edwin Meese, the president’s counselor, and the pragmatic Baker slamming each other around the ring. “The right hand,” quipped the president, “does not know what the far-right hand is doing.” Baker’s team got almost nothing accomplished — until Reagan was wounded in an assassination attempt, creating a wave of sympathy that helped smooth the passage of his tax cuts after seven months in office. Even Obama’s “no drama” White House was riven by warring egos and ideological factions.

By contrast, Klain and his staff have been getting things done, paddling furiously below the surface while gliding along with barely a ripple: no leaks, no mixed messages, no backbiting. “This is not a Team of Rivals,” Anita Dunn — Biden’s senior adviser and a member of both Obama’s and Biden’s inner circle — told me. Klain's unruffled management of the White House has impressed both sides of the aisle. “So far Ron has barely made a missstep,” Ken Duberstein, Reagan's final chief of staff, told me.

It is a team that had prepared for this moment, when the very idea that government can do anything right is at stake. In contrast to Trump’s wrecking crew, who shoveled sand into the gears of government, Klain and his team of policy wonks have spent their careers, in both the public and private sector, learning to work the levers of power. Some of them learned from previous White House blunders. When Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMillennial momentum means trouble for the GOP Biden's Cuba problem: Obama made a bet and lost Democrats need a coherent response to attacks on critical race theory MORE’s healthcare website crashed upon its debut in 2013, his chief Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today Overnight Defense: Biden says US combat mission in Iraq wrapping by year's end | Civilian casualties in Afghanistan peak amid US exit | VA mandates COVID-19 vaccine for health workers Overnight Health Care: New round of vaccine mandates | Health groups call for mandates for all health workers | Rising case count reignites debate over restrictions MORE reached out to a managerial wizard named Jeffrey Zients, who reconfigured the site and got it up and running. Eight years later, as Biden’s COVID-19 czar, Zients has mobilized a whole-of-government pandemic response, delivering more than 300 million vaccine doses to Americans.

No chief has ever had better credentials than Klain for the job: as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Byron White; Senate Judiciary Committee counsel; chief of staff to two vice presidents, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreMcAuliffe calls on Youngkin to drop out of 'election integrity' rally Anything-but-bipartisan 1/6 commission will seal Pelosi's retirement. Here's why Kamala Harris's unprecedented challenge MORE and Biden; Ebola czar. Klain has also been helped by his close relationship with the boss. Many White House chiefs start learning how to manage the president on Inauguration Day. Klain has known Biden for almost 35 years and can practically complete his sentences. “It’s a perfect fit because of his long relationship with the president,” Leon Panetta, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonOvernight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' Biden rolls dice by getting more aggressive on vaccines Amanda Knox blasts 'Stillwater' movie: 'Does my name belong to me? MORE’s quintessential chief, told me.

Chiefs who are close friends with presidents sometimes have trouble telling them hard truths. But Klain is a staffer — and therefore able to tell Biden bad news. “I know him well and know what his needs are, and how he likes to be staffed, and how he likes the operation to go,” Klain said recently. On Klain’s set, the famously unscripted president hits his marks like a veteran actor.

ADVERTISEMENT

Biden’s team has made some unforced errors — a slow response to migrants flooding the Southern border; the failed nomination of Neera TandenNeera TandenThe Hill's Morning Report - Will Schumer back down on his deadline? Biden's budget vacancy raises eyebrows White House releases staff salaries showing narrowed gender pay gap MORE as OMB director; a foofaraw over refugee caps; tone deafness at the start of the Israeli-Hamas conflict. No Capitol Hill Republicans have so far signed on to Biden’s agenda. And progressives may break ranks if he does not go bold enough for them on police reform and racial justice.

But that low hum you hear in place of the deafening sturm und drang of the last four years is not just the absence of Trump. It is the sound of a remarkably disciplined and effective White House.

The bad news for Biden? The average tenure of a chief of staff is only eighteen months.

Chris Whipple is the author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, and most recently The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future. Follow him on Twitter @ccwhip