Ron Klain’s Magic Power: Making Government Work

Joe Biden’s chief of staff has worked in all three branches, can speak for the president, and knocked agency heads–everything needed after Trump and Bannon’s “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, he chose Cabinet members who had spent their careers undermining the departments they were chosen to lead. During remarks at CPAC in February 2017, Steve Bannon—who was then serving as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President—explained why those choices were no accident. Cabinet members were selected to render “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” As a result, bureaucracies like the State Department were decimated. The primary qualification for working in the administration was not expertise or competence, but loyalty to the president and delight in being a wrecking ball. 

None of that posed a problem for Republicans who, for decades, have embraced Ronald Reagan’s mantra about government being the problem, not the solution. When the federal government proves itself to be ineffective, that reinforces their claims. 

On the other end of the political spectrum, progressives haven’t paid much attention to how well the federal government works either. That is because the focus on the left has been about promoting policies and legislative priorities, as Paul Glastris pointed out here at the Washington Monthly in 2015. 

But for the most part today’s left-leaning progressives are almost entirely focused on politics, economic justice, social issues, and the influence of money in politics. These are important subjects. But the vast complex of government is largely a black box to these folks…What I’m saying is this: there are energies being unleashed today that give the country a shot at reforming itself. But reform can’t and won’t happen until the left takes government—its structure and functioning—far more seriously.

Too often, we forget that one of the executive branch’s main tasks is to implement legislation. When that task is done poorly, as we saw with the Paycheck Protection Program that was supposed to support small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the American people pay the price, and the party that promotes the role of government in addressing the issues we face suffers. 

With the deconstruction of the administrative state under Trump, no president in modern history will face a bigger challenge in this arena than Joe Biden. That is why his choice of Ronald Klain to be chief of staff is so important. 

In his book Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple recounts an interview with former president Barack Obama, who said, “One of the things I’ve learned is that the big breakthroughs are typically the result of a lot of grunt work—just a whole lot of blocking and tackling.” Grunt work is what chiefs of staff do. Their job is to understand how the federal government’s interagency process works and break any logjams that might halt progress.  

In choosing Ronald Klain to be his chief of staff, Biden picked someone he trusts—a critical qualification for that position. He also chose someone who achieved the rare hat trick of serving in all three branches of government. Klain was a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Byron White, served as Chief Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee during Biden’s term as chair, and was chief of staff to Attorney General Janet Reno, Vice President Al Gore, and Biden himself when he was vice president. But perhaps Klain’s most relevant role for the moment was as Obama’s Ebola Czar. 

The initial response of the Obama administration to the outbreak of Ebola in 2014 was a bit chaotic. When Klain was called on to address that problem, the choice was viewed as controversial. He isn’t a doctor or an epidemiologist, but a lawyer by training and a Democratic operative by experience. But as Vox’s Ezra Klein noted: “The federal government has epidemiologists. It has public health professionals. It needed someone to coordinate responses. It needed someone who understood how to make government work, and because ‘government’ is not singular, but a plural, work together.” Politico’s Blake Hounshell pointed out why Klain was the right pick for that job.

For a president entering office in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Klain’s experience as the Ebola Czar will be invaluable. But beyond that, Biden and Harris will face the enormous task of reconstructing the federal government. While legislative priorities and executive orders will be a critical part of their work, none of that will be effective until personnel are in place and accountable for carrying out the president’s agenda. Someone like Ronald Klain, who understands how to make government work, will be a critical part of that process.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.