Biden's Covid-19 czar could define early months of his presidency

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – Two weeks after Joe Biden became United States President, his administration announced its biggest breakthrough yet in distributing Covid-19 vaccines.

But Mr Biden didn’t share the good news himself.

Instead, the Tuesday (Feb 2) briefing came from a 54-year-old former business executive and Biden ally named Jeff Zients, who is unfamiliar to most Americans.

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

Mr Zients does not have a medical or military background, like the two men who ran Operation Warp Speed in the Trump Administration.

But the former Bain & Co consultant is well regarded for his organisational and planning skills, particularly among those who served with him during the Obama-Biden administration.

“This is a mess that he is walking into on every front,” said Ms Kathleen Sebelius, Mr 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.”

Mr Zients’ Mr-Fix-It reputation blossomed in 2013, after he had served a few years as President Obama’s chief performance officer, a newly created position.

In October of that year, the website at the centre 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 were not going well and top aides were called to the White House to brainstorm.

At that point, recalls Mr Jim Messina, Mr Obama’s deputy chief of staff in his first term, “we all looked at each other and said, ‘Go get Zients'”.

Mr 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.

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

On Tuesday, Mr 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 Mr Biden became president.

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

Mr Zients’s naming was not 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.

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Mr Zients’ stints in consulting, as head of The Advisory Board Co, and with more recent private investment work, has raised concern that he would be reluctant to invoke the Defence 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 Mr Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, “I honestly just don’t want anyone who gives a darn about those sort of sob stories.”

Mr 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.”

Sharply regimented

There are also concerns he and his top deputy, Ms Natalie Quillian, a former White House and Pentagon senior adviser, are fraying nerves with a sharply regimented approach.

Ms Quillian’s insistence on the use of slide decks, like a business consultant, has alienated some who say it does not mesh well with Mr Biden’s less formal style.

Additionally, Mr Zients and Ms 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 Dr Anthony Fauci, one of Mr 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,” Dr Fauci said. “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 organiser.”

Mr 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 US government to respond to and recover from this pandemic”.

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

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

That programme, fraught from the start by political pressure from Mr 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 Mr Biden was inaugurated.

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

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

Mrs 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 programme she co-founded with her husband, and Women for Women International.

Mr Zients’ 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 Mr 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 Mr Biden’s choice to toast and Mr Zients’ interest in the restaurant.

Now Mr Zients’ problems go beyond bagels, which allies say is fine by him. Ms Jen Psaki, Mr Biden’s press secretary, who also worked with Mr 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”, Ms 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.”

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