Ron Klain, the man executing Biden’s mission
Last week, at an event hosted by Georgetown University, where he studied four decades ago, Ron Klain explained just how tight he is with America’s 46th president. “I’ve had the good fortune to work for Joe Biden off and on for more than 30 years,” he said. “And so 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”.
The operation that is Biden’s presidency has certainly gone well so far. This week, he celebrated his 100th day in office, having accomplished his two main goals: a swift vaccination rollout against the pandemic, and a $1.9tn stimulus plan to reboot the economy.
Klain, the White House chief of staff, is among the key architects of that success, cementing his status as one of the most skilled US political managers of his generation. “No one was as well prepared to be White House chief of staff, and up to now I think he’s living up to that,” says Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers, a book about the role. “If the Trump White House was a smoking, backfiring jalopy, then the Biden White House is a finely tuned Rolls-Royce”.
A defining moment for the administration came in March, when the stimulus bill received its final approval from Congress. Biden followed the vote with a small group of advisers. “After it was over the president thanked the room, then turned to Ron and said, ‘look, we all know this wouldn’t have been possible without Ron’. And Ron immediately said, ‘This wouldn’t have been possible without the team’,” says one senior administration official.
“I think that defines how he approaches the job better than anything. He is a chief of staff who has the confidence and trust of the president, but also makes sure that people in the building share in the credit,” she adds.
Klain, 59, was born to a Jewish family in Indianapolis: his mother was a travel agent and his father a building contractor. His own aspirations for office quickly ran aground at Georgetown: he sought a seat on the student senate but was disqualified and fined one dollar for campaigning too close to a polling station, according to a 1979 college newspaper article, dug out by Politico, a politics website.
After getting a law degree at Harvard University, he headed back to Washington in the late 1980s, clerking for Supreme Court Justice Byron White, then working on the Senate judiciary committee, which was chaired by Biden. Other political roles followed, including chief of staff for vice-president Al Gore (actor Kevin Spacey would later play Klain as a dogged lawyer defending Gore’s case in the HBO film Recount).
Following Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, vice-president Biden tapped Klain as his chief of staff. He emerged as one of the Democratic party’s top presidential debate specialists, helping both Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“In order to be a great debate coach you really have to be a master of all subject matter areas. There’s policy, there’s communications, there’s process, there’s presentation,” says Karen Dunn, a litigation attorney who joined the sessions. “Ron was able to bring tremendous insight, and vision to all of those categories and at the same time be admired and liked”.
One of Klain’s most high-profile assignments during the Obama years was managing the Ebola outbreak, which prepared him for coronavirus. “He knows how government works and how to make it work,” says Tom Frieden, former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Klain has also had a spell as a lobbyist, working for clients including Fannie Mae, the government-backed mortgage giant. He was also general counsel at Revolution LLC, the venture capital firm founded by Steve Case, former CEO of AOL.
Over the years, he has gained a reputation for his approachability. “He is one of the most even tempered [people in Washington], which is a rare quality sometimes in politics these days,” says Tom Daschle, the former South Dakota senator who hired him in the 1990s.
Not everything has gone flawlessly. Klain has had to deal with the botched nomination of Neera Tanden for budget director; the White House’s struggles to address a surge in migration across the southern border and heavy criticism for hesitating to raise the cap on refugees, a key campaign pledge. Republicans have accused the White House of overly aggressive tax-and-spending policies and said the president has not lived up to his vows of bipartisanship.
But Klain is not easily rattled, people close to him say. “A genuine strength is the ability to not let any immediate twist or turn derail an overall strategy or derail the building — not to let people get down on themselves or decide that all is lost,” says Anita Dunn, the senior White House adviser.
Some allies of the president believe Klain has the potential to be one of the most effective White House chiefs of staff ever. But Whipple says it’s too early to tell. “The hard part of being chief of staff is walking into the Oval Office, closing the door and telling the president what he doesn’t want to hear. He may be up to that, and he may not. Some White House chiefs who become too close to the boss have a hard time”.
For now at least, Democrats are generally thrilled with Klain’s performance. “He is putting out fires big and small, he is solving problems and helping deliver on promises,” says Scott Mulhauser, a former Obama administration official. “That’s what you want from your chief of staff”.
Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey