The White House is planning to appoint Jeff Zients as chief of staff after the expected departure of Ron Klain, people familiar with the matter said on Sunday, in what would be a pivotal reshuffle at one of the most delicate moments in Joe Biden’s presidency.
Zients would join the White House as Biden navigates controversy around classified government documents found at his personal residence and former private office while he prepares to run for office again in the 2024 presidential elections.
The file discoveries, which are being probed by the US Department of Justice and have triggered the appointment of a special counsel, have dented enthusiasm surrounding Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in last November’s midterm elections.
Zients earlier served the Biden White House as co-ordinator of the administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic before stepping down last April. Biden said he had picked Zients for the job “because there is no one better at delivering results than Jeff”.
The former coronavirus tsar also held senior responsibilities under former President Barack Obama as director of the National Economic Council and as the supervisor of an operation to fix bugs on the government’s health insurance website. Prior to these roles, he was twice appointed as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Reports of Zients’s arrival come a day after people familiar with the matter said Klain, the White House chief of staff since the start of Biden’s term, was planning to leave. Klain is not expected to depart before February 7, when Biden will address a joint session of Congress in the president’s annual State of the Union speech.
Klain has managed crucial moments in Biden’s term including the president’s inauguration in the wake of the January 6 2021 riots at the US Capitol and fraught negotiations with Congress on extensive legislative programmes, including a string of blockbuster economic packages.
The White House has declined to comment on Klain’s departure and did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Zients’s planned appointment.
If the news is confirmed, Zients would be a more centrist chief of staff than Klain, who nurtured close ties with Democratic lawmakers from the progressive left of the party. Zients also has a more low-key style than Klain, a prolific social media user who often posted on Twitter to promote and defend Biden’s policies.
The expected change comes as the White House grapples with a new balance of power on Capitol Hill after Republicans narrowly gained control of the House of Representatives in the wake of the midterm elections. This means Biden will no longer be focused on passing big legislation through Congress, as was the case during his first two years in office with Democratic majorities in both chambers.
Instead, he is more likely to be consumed by stand-offs with House Republicans, including over the need to raise the US debt limit.