When Joe Biden won the presidency, he promised that his first priority would be to end the Covid crisis, which at the time was responsible for more than 3,000 deaths a day.
He then turned to Jeff Zients to make this promise a reality.
A longtime corporate executive, Zients had no public health experience and little expertise in fighting pandemics. But during more than a year as the White House’s Covid response czar, he led a sweeping government effort to rein in the virus, spearheaded a complex national campaign to vaccinate the vast majority of the nation, and ultimately charted a path for the nation out of a once-in-a-century health emergency.
That put Zients, who won internal praise for his managerial prowess, on course for his next high-profile job as Biden’s newest chief of staff.
As Biden’s top aide, Zients is now expected to bring his logistical and organizational expertise to a West Wing facing another pivot. As the president prepares for a likely re-election bid, he is also under intensifying scrutiny over his handling of classified documents. House Republicans are promising a series of investigations as the administration tries to navigate an increasingly delicate set of economic dilemmas.
Zients’ appointment is also likely to magnify another inconvenient reality: That despite his extensive work to bring Covid under control, the virus continues to spread and kill thousands of Americans every week.
His critics argue that the Covid team under his leadership did too little to limit the spread of the virus, prioritizing economic concerns like quickly reopening businesses ahead of the public health steps needed to give the US a chance to eradicate the disease.
“Obviously, it’s pretty disappointing,” Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project and a chief critic of Zients’ past as an investor in various healthcare companies, said of his choice as chief of staff.
Advocates also charge that Zients allowed the administration to grow cocky and complacent at critical times, allowing Covid to return and deepening Americans’ distrust of the federal response.
But Zients also has plenty of supporters, public and private, who emphasize that he is a uniquely talented internal operator capable of solving the government’s toughest challenges, even if he lacks the long political experience. They point to his management of the Covid response as proof of that.
“Getting the right decision made and getting it made quickly, that was a hallmark,” said Andy Slavitt, a former senior adviser on Biden’s Covid response, in his praise of Zients’ communication and execution skills. “It’s the unsexy stuff, but he thrives on it.”
A former Obama administration official, Zients built a reputation in Democratic circles as the go-to Mr. Fix-It after turning around the HealthCare.gov website after its botched launch in 2013. He would go on to lead the National Economic Council and the Office of Management and Budget, developing a close relationship with Biden in the process.
Biden appointed him to run the Covid response shortly after winning the 2020 election, accusing Zients of orchestrating a sprawling response that cut across multiple federal departments.
Zients led the development of a step-by-step process to tackle the pandemic, producing a nearly 100-page national Covid-19 emergency plan in the administration’s early days.
The Covid team achieved a number of initial successes, speeding up the manufacture of vaccines that had only begun rolling out months earlier and ensuring enough shots for every American.
The resulting national vaccination campaign represented one of the largest public health mobilizations in decades—an undertaking that eventually achieved its goal of vaccinating more than two-thirds of adults by that summer.
The widespread rollout won widespread praise and at the time appeared to put the United States on track to eradicate the virus. Instead, it set Zients and his White House team up for a setback that would undermine the nation’s confidence in the Covid response.
Shortly after Biden declared the pandemic in retreat at a July 4 party, the Delta strain fueled a new outbreak of cases — catching Zients’ team off guard and scrambling to redirect an effort that officials had thought they would soon be able to wind down.
The outbreak contributed to falling approval ratings for Biden and increased partisan opposition to the Covid response that would prove to be among the biggest obstacles to dealing with the pandemic threat. And while administration officials praised Zients’ calm management of the response to Delta, the administration took increasing heat from outside health experts over the view that it had no immediate plan to bring the virus back under control. That criticism intensified a few months later, when another wave of Covid caught the White House unprepared to handle the growing demand for tests.
The resurgence raised a new round of questions about Zients’ leadership and whether he was exercising too much control over decision-making, which Biden had once repeatedly promised would be guided by science and the opinions of his public health experts.
But while he retained influence, Zients also largely escaped the scrutiny that other top health officials such as Anthony Fauci, Biden’s former medical adviser, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky received over their roles in the response.
Part of what helped Zients was his management style. He remained a low-key presence, rarely appearing on television or making himself the face of major initiatives, although he oversaw nearly every major decision on the pandemic response. Inside the White House, he also cultivated a close relationship with Biden and outgoing chief of staff Ron Klain — while winning over staff with his ability to deftly manage the levers of government and head off internal conflicts.
When Zients announced his departure in March 2022, the virus was coming down again. More importantly, officials said at the time, he had built out the infrastructure for a durable response dependent on continued access to vaccines, treatments and tests.
That infrastructure is about to be put to the test as the administration prepares to wind down its contingency. And as Zients returns to the White House, it is among the wide range of policy priorities and policy imperatives that Biden once again entrusts to him.