Biden chief of staff pick kicks off jockeying for administration jobs

Hunter Walker and Brittany Shepherd
·7-min read

WASHINGTON — President Trump may not yet have recognized Joe Biden’s victory, but the Democratic president-elect has already begun the work of the transition to the White House, kicking off a fierce competition for jobs in the new administration.

That competition stems from the first major staffing news to come from Biden’s nascent White House team. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Biden had picked Ron Klain as his White House chief of staff.

Klain was Biden’s chief of staff when he was vice president under President Barack Obama, and his selection for a role that is considered one of the most influential in the White House was widely expected. “Everyone knew the Klain thing was coming,” said a former Obama administration official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of hiring issues.

Ron Klain
Ron Klain, former White House Ebola response coordinator, has been chosen by Joe Biden to be his chief of staff. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The chief of staff traditionally serves as the president’s right hand and is one of the most powerful unelected positions in Washington. Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House transition project, said the chief of staff is particularly important because they play a key role in crafting and promoting the president’s agenda.

“The chief brings together policy, politics and publicity,” said Kumar, who has studied the West Wing for over four decades and written books on its operations.

Traditionally, the chief of staff has been known as a gatekeeper to the Oval Office who controls who and what gets the president’s attention.

“He’s going to choose the staff secretary, and the staff secretary is the one who is going to be gathering information for presidential decisions and sending it … to go in to the president,” Kumar said of Klain. “The staff secretary is the one who monitors what goes into the Oval Office and what goes out.”

While Trump has cycled through four different chiefs of staff, Klain’s closeness to the president-elect and the influential nature of his post will almost certainly make positions in the chief of staff’s office among the most desirable in the Biden administration. That means Klain’s selection is set to kick off a scramble for administration jobs, even though Trump and the General Services Administration have refused to recognize Biden’s victory and authorize funds traditionally allocated for the president-elect’s transition team to set up office space and begin the work of evaluating executive branch agencies and vetting potential hires.

Joe Biden with Ron Klain
Biden with Ron Klain, then the Ebola response coordinator for the Obama administration, in 2014. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Michael Hardaway, a longtime Democratic operative who left Capitol Hill last month to launch a policy newsletter, suggested the fight for West Wing positions would be more intense than in past administrations, since Biden had amassed a long record in the nation’s capital that has left him with decades of loyalists.

“White House staff jockeying is going to be some ‘Hunger Games’ s***,” Hardaway joked. “It always is, but this guy has 30 years of staffing.”

Biden, who won the presidential election on Nov. 7, previously ran for the White House on multiple occasions before serving as Obama’s vice president. He also spent more than three decades in the Senate.

Now many of the people in Biden’s extended orbit are hoping to work in his administration. Democratic staffers and operatives all over Washington are polishing their résumés and calling references. One source said they had heard of someone who broke a lease in a mad dash to get back to the nation’s capital.

Biden’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Sources familiar with the Biden transition tell Yahoo News that the résumé race will heat up in earnest once high-profile Cabinet appointments are made, since the direction and tone of those offices will likely be set by the principals. It’s expected that a bulk of the key announcements will be made between Thanksgiving and the inauguration in January. Once they see who’s in charge, former staffers and potential new hires can make more informed decisions.

The competition is not just over jobs, but jobs that will be regarded as critical. Every White House has different so-called power centers, the former Obama administration official said. The National Security Council and National Economic Council have traditionally been highly influential, but with the president-elect having committed to making the COVID-19 pandemic a top priority, his coronavirus task force is likely to be a powerful office within the West Wing. Biden is also set to have a uniquely high-profile vice president in Kamala Harris, and the key positions under her purview will likely be in high demand.

Joe Biden
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Outside of the White House, however, it’s difficult to predict which agencies or departments will be the most desirable, but there is an expectation that busy offices, likely led by politicians with close ties to Obama world, would be attractive.

“It’s too soon to get a sense of the actual hot offices because no real leadership decisions have been made,” said the Democratic aide, “but an agency like State is always hot.”

A Biden campaign source said the current focus is on bringing in subject-area experts to help implement “the Biden/Harris agenda.” The source also said they were confident that people on the current team would feel recognized for what they had done at the end of the transition and hiring process. “Their work speaks for itself,” the source said of Biden’s campaign staff.

While there’s competition, individuals in the president-elect’s circle said the leadership of campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon has helped keep the process calm by making a major effort to manage expectations among members of the current team. O’Malley Dillon, who led a relatively drama-free — and leak-free — operation since she signed on in the wake of Biden’s stunning loss in the Iowa caucuses, held a conference call with the campaign on Monday afternoon in which, according to one staffer, she “walked through what this process looks like.”

Campaign staff were also given surveys asking where they might be interested in serving in a Biden administration. “They’ve tried to communicate a lot with us,” the staffer said. “Biden takes care of his people. He’s passed that culture through the campaign and Jen O’Malley Dillon, who’s the same way.”

Jen O'Malley Dillon
Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon. (Andre Chung for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

A senior Democratic aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the transition process, affirmed the notion that the Biden campaign is committed to taking care of its own.

“I wouldn’t say there’s worry. I think communication from campaign leadership has been really good, and a lot of the communication has been ‘We don’t have answers now, we are working on it and will be in touch as soon as possible,’” the senior aide said.

Nevertheless, Biden’s decades in Washington have left him with a circle that extends far beyond his campaign team, and there will almost certainly be fierce competition for the most influential posts. And while the other major power centers are not necessarily clear, Klain’s office will clearly be a place many would like to land.

Among the most desired positions may be the main deputies to the chief of staff. During the Obama administration, the chief of staff had two deputies: one focused on policy and the other on operations. There were also officials who, according to the former Obama official, had roles that were basically “shadow deputy chiefs of staff.”

“Those jobs,” the former Obama official said, “are also going to be highly coveted.”

Kumar, the expert on presidential transitions and operations, agreed.

“Everybody wants to be in one place, and that is the floor of the West Wing with the president and the chief of staff,” she said.

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