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Jonathan Bernstein – Biden Gets His Most Important Pick Right

President-elect Joe Biden has selected Ron Klain to be White House chief of staff, to fairly widespread acclaim. Klain was once a staffer for Biden on the Senate Judiciary Committee; since then, he’s worked for a number of Democratic big shots, eventually serving as Biden’s vice presidential chief of staff during the rollout of the recovery act, and then as Barack Obama’s Ebola czar. He’s well qualified for the job, and seems to be well regarded by party groups and even by some Republicans (which is why I said Biden should choose him!).

Also presumably happy? Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The White House staff, in its modern sense, only goes back to Harry Truman’s presidency, and for a long time there was a serious partisan disagreement on how to run what was practically a new branch of government. Eisenhower, drawing on his military background, introduced the idea of a chief of staff and a highly structured organizational chart. Every Republican from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush followed his lead. Truman had used a much looser setup, basically emulating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Democrats tended to follow Truman’s example at the beginning of their terms, with either no designated chief of staff or (as with Bill Clinton) a very weak one. But over their presidencies, they gravitated toward the Ike model. The argument seemed to end in 2009, when Obama began his presidency with Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, only to have Donald Trump govern — or fail to govern — in the old Democratic style.

It’s no surprise that Biden will follow Obama’s lead. Indeed, it’s hard to give him all that much credit for selecting the most obvious candidate and organizing his presidency in the most obvious way — except that we’ve just been through an administration that got the easy things wrong all too often. So credit Biden for ignoring any temptation to do something dramatic or unexpected.

Selecting a chief of staff is the single most important personnel call that Biden will make in setting up his administration. Get that wrong — as Ronald Reagan did when he chose Don Regan in 1985 — and a president invites all sorts of problems. A good chief of staff functions as both an extension of the president and as someone who can compensate for the boss’s weaknesses; see, for example, Reagan’s original choice, James Baker. All presidencies are subject to infighting, staffers who care more their own profiles than about the president’s success, and various other crises and disputes. A good chief of staff will minimize the downsides.

Of course, we’ll have to see if having the right experience and reputation will actually yield success for Klain. But to the extent that restoring normal, boring, competent governance was one of Biden’s key promises, he seems to be on the road to fulfilling it.


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