Biden Covid Czar Could Define Early Months of His Presidency

Two weeks after Joe Biden became president, his administration announced its biggest breakthrough yet in distributing Covid-19 vaccines. But Biden didn’t share the good news himself.

Instead, the Tuesday briefing came from a 54-year-old former business executive and Biden ally named Jeff Zients, who is little known to most Americans.

Zients’s arrival as Biden’s Covid-19 czar comes as the president has put beating the pandemic -- an incredibly complex and demanding goal -- at his top priority. It’s a posting that will test a reputation Zients has built with Democrats in Washington as the go-to-guy when things go awry.

Zients doesn’t have a medical or military background, like the two men who ran Operation Warp Speed, the Trump Administration’s vaccine delivery program. But the former Bain & Co. consultant is well regarded for his organizational and planning skills, particularly among those who served with him during the Obama-Biden administration.

Biden Covid Czar Could Define Early Months of His Presidency

“This is a mess that he is walking into on every front,” said Kathleen Sebelius, Barack Obama’s first Health and Human Services Secretary. “He isn’t a medical expert and shouldn’t be, but for a project that’s this complicated and this unprecedented, I can’t think of a better person.”

Zients’s Mr. Fix-it reputation blossomed in 2013, when he was President Barack Obama’s chief performance officer, a newly created position.

In October of that year, the website at the center of the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic issue, crashed on the day it launched, keeping thousands from signing up. Days later, efforts to fix it still weren’t going well and top aides were called to the White House to brainstorm. At that point, recalls Jim Messina, Obama’s deputy chief of staff in his first term, “we all looked at each other and said, ‘Go get Zients.’”

Zients started work on the site three weeks after HealthCare.gov made its dismal debut. By Dec. 1, the site was at least headed in the right direction, handling about 35,000 concurrent users a day.

Zients was a “calm and calming” influence amid the frenzy, Sebelius recalled. It’s a personality trait he’ll likely need as he seeks to rein in a pandemic that will define the early months of the presidency.

Vaccine Allocations

On Tuesday, Zients announced that vaccine allocations to states would rise for the second week in a row, and that the administration would expand reimbursements to states for expenses related to the pandemic, dating to the start of 2020, before Biden became president.

Additionally, he said, the administration would begin to test a program to provide coronavirus vaccines directly to retail pharmacies, with 6,500 getting about 1 million shots weekly as a trial run, starting on Feb. 11 -- an effort that got underway during the Trump administration.

Zients’s naming wasn’t without controversy. And his management style since he took the job after being co-chair of the Biden transition team is already drawing some criticism.

Financial Community

Zients’s stints in consulting, as head of The Advisory Board Co., and with more recent private investment work, has raised concern he’d be reluctant to invoke the Defense Production Act to force companies to make needed supplies.

“Somebody like Jeff Zients has a lot more sympathy for the businesses that are going to be asked to do things that they don’t want to do,” said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “I honestly just don’t want anyone who gives a darn about those sort of sob stories.”

Zients, though, has spoken forcefully about using the act in his first briefings. “Four-hundred thousand people have died,” he said on Jan. 27. “Everything is on the table across the whole supply chain.”

In the week since Zients spoke the number of Covid-related deaths in the U.S. has risen to almost 447,000. Close to 34 million vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S., according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, while more than 26 million people around the country have tested positive for the virus.

Sharply Regimented

There are also concerns he and his top deputy, Natalie Quillian, a former White House and Pentagon senior adviser, are fraying nerves with a sharply regimented approach. Quillian’s insistence on the use of slide decks, like a business consultant, has alienated some who say it doesn’t mesh well with Biden’s less formal style.

Additionally, Zients and Quillian often keep such a tight hold on information that health experts who brief the president don’t always have the latest on data or efforts, according to three people familiar with the internal discussions.

But Anthony Fauci, one of Biden’s top medical advisers who was largely frozen out by former president Donald Trump, said that’s not the case. “There’s no way that he tries to hold back on anything,” Fauci said in an interview. “Believe me, having been on both sides of that fence, I think I can tell you pretty clearly that’s not the case with Jeff. He’s completely flexible and open. He’s a great organizer.”

Zients declined to comment for this story. But in a Jan. 27 briefing with government scientists, he described his role as “ensuring that we are empowering our experts, and using the full capabilities of the U.S. government to respond to and recover from this pandemic.”

“I don’t think he intended to come back” from the business side, said Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to the White House Covid-19 response team who worked with Zients to repair HealthCare.gov when Slavitt was an executive at UnitedHealth Group Inc.

But, he added, “this is a once-in-a-lifetime problem to help solve and if you feel like you can actually provide help, at some level, everything else stops mattering.”

Inherited Problems

Zients has described the vaccine distribution effort the Biden team inherited from former President Donald Trump as “worse than we could have imagined.”

That program, fraught from the start by political pressure from Trump, got off to a slow start and came nowhere near meeting the administration’s goal of getting 20 million vaccine doses administered by the end of 2020. But the effort was running more efficiently by Jan. 20, when Biden was inaugurated.

Moncef Slaoui, who served as science adviser for Operation Warp Speed, said he only had three or so “polite and constructive” conversations with Zients, adding, “the facts will speak. Look at the facts when they become available.”

South Africa Influence

Zients is married to Mary Mennell Zients, who grew up in South Africa. They own a house in Cape Town that Messina said he retreated to to write part of the plan he used as campaign manager to get Obama re-elected in 2012.

Mary Menell Zients also worked at Bain & Co., and has been involved in a number of philanthropic ventures, including with the Urban Alliance, an inner-city high school jobs and mentoring program she co-founded with her husband, and Women for Women International.

Jeff Zients’s business ventures, meanwhile, stretch from a position as chief executive officer of a private investment firm called the Cranemere Group that he has cut ties with, to being the former co-owner of a Georgetown bagel spot named Call Your Mother.

The shop saw a few minutes of fame when Biden visited it in his first Washington-based restaurant stop as president and ordered a toasted bagel. That sparked a furious online debate over both Biden’s choice to toast and Zients’s interest in the restaurant.

Now Zients’s problems go beyond bagels, which allies say is fine by him. Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, who also worked with Zients in the Obama administration, said his success will be measured by getting the pandemic under control.

He is always looking “for a pile of manure to dive into,” Psaki said in an interview. “That’s what he actually likes. And this is, no question, the biggest challenge of the early stage of this presidency.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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