RESOLVED: The single most important personnel decision a newly elected president makes is who will serve as their chief of staff.
The pick not only reveals how the president-elect views himself — his strengths, his weaknesses, what he thinks he needs most (and least) but also sends a signal to everyone inside official Washington about what sort of White House they will be dealing with.
Donald Trump picked former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a sign, he thought, to Washington Republicans that even though he was elected as a radical outsider, he would at least try to play by the rules of the permanent political class. (Yeah, not so much.) Barack Obama plucked Rahm Emmanuel from the House of Representatives to run his White House, sending a message that his White House (or at least his chief of staff) wouldn’t take a lot of crap from, well, anyone.
Which brings me to Joe Biden, and his announcement Wednesday night that longtime political hand (and Biden loyalist) Ron Klain will be his first chief of staff.
“His deep, varied experience and capacity to work with people all across the political spectrum is precisely what I need in a White House chief of staff as we confront this moment of crisis and bring our country together again,” Biden said of Klain in announcing the hire.
So, what does Biden’s decision to name Klain as his chief of staff tell us? Well, a few things:
1) Biden is loyal: Unlike, say, Trump — or even Obama — Biden has been at this politics game for a very long time. And he’s had the same group of people in his inner circle almost that entire time. That includes Klain, whose ties to Biden go back to the late 1980s, when he served as general counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Biden was the chair of the committee at the time.)
2) Biden wants an experienced hand: Klain’s resume is all “Washington establishment.” Which is exactly why Biden picked him. Biden, throughout his campaign, never ran away from the idea that he was part of the establishment. Or that his experience in Washington was anything but a good thing. In naming Klain as his chief of staff, Biden is affirming his belief that experienced hands are better than fresh eyes. Klain has been chief of staff to two vice presidents — Biden and Al Gore — and has held a variety of other jobs throughout the Democratic administrations of the last three decades. He knows Washington, and Washington knows him.
3) Biden sees Covid-19 as the fundamental challenge facing his presidency: Klain’s most recent role in government was as the Ebola czar during Obama’s second term. That experience is likely to be essential as Biden seeks to get the coronavirus pandemic under control, which it very much is not at the moment. There are simply very few people — in or out of government — who have the 360-degree view of how to handle something like Covid-19 that Klain does. Picking Klain then makes very clear that Biden sees the virus as the top priority for the start of his first term.
To be clear: The average American doesn’t know Klain. Or care all that much why Biden picked him. But that doesn’t mean that the choice isn’t important. It’s critically important to understand how Biden sees his White House and how he wants it to run.