Few people in Joseph R. Biden’s inner circle have thrived in the swamp of Washington more swimmingly than Ron Klain.
Mr. Klain, tapped by the presumed president-elect to become White House chief of staff, also served as Mr. Biden’s chief of staff during his tenure as vice president. The Harvard Law School graduate has worked three stints in the Clinton and Obama administrations, along with top jobs as a Democratic Senate aide.
The Indiana native has mingled his government service with lucrative revolving-door detours into the private sector as a K Street lobbyist and lawyer. He has worked for special interests including Big Tech, Fannie Mae, a pharmaceutical firm and a company that has been called a front for the asbestos industry.
“If you’re thinking of a swamp having park rangers, then Ron Klain is a park ranger,” said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch. “He’s someone whose job is to protect it.”
Mr. Klain, 59, also worked as general counsel for a venture capital firm created by AOL founder Steve Case. Mr. Case has called him “a talented manager and a wise counselor who understands government, business and the nonprofit sectors.”
The “sheer magnitude” of the job facing an incoming White House chief of staff is daunting even in a normal transition, said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron who has studied the West Wing post.
“Any incoming chief of staff at the beginning of a new administration has to design and stand up a completely new organization, the White House, in just a matter of weeks — 400-plus White House staff positions (not to mention thousands in the executive branch) plus a new organizational chart,” Mr. Cohen said. “And the chief must do this while making the new organization’s staff structure, the decision-making process, and the policy process compatible with the wishes and work style of the president-elect. It’s a herculean task.”
He said Mr. Klain’s biggest challenge is “helping put together a White House staff and Cabinet that balances the competing interests of the progressive, liberal and centrist wings of the Democratic Party.”
“The coalition that elected Biden is very broad, and each faction will expect representation in the Biden administration and will be keeping score,” he said.
The Biden campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
When Mr. Biden announced his choice of Mr. Klain, he said his longtime aide’s “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.”
Mr. Klain had a prominent role early in Barack Obama’s presidency, when Mr. Biden administered the oft-criticized $821 billion economic “stimulus” plan. Democrats said the measure helped pull the nation out of the Great Recession, although Mr. Obama later acknowledged that many “shovel ready” projects did not pan out.
Ray LaHood, a Republican who served as transportation secretary in the Obama administration, worked closely with Mr. Biden and his team on the recovery plan that delivered $48 billion to Mr. LaHood’s agency. He gave Mr. Klain high marks for his knowledge of how Washington works and his organizational skills.
“Biden and Klain really ran a tight ship,” Mr. LaHood said in an interview. “They wanted to make sure the money was being spent correctly. They wanted to know where it was going, how many people were being employed.”
Still, examples of waste in the stimulus plan are legendary, and Mr. Klain was near the center of one of the most infamous cases.
The solar panel company Solyndra received a $535 million loan guarantee in 2009. The company was backed by the family foundation of George Kaiser, a major Obama fundraiser.
Mr. Biden was eager for the company to receive the money about the same time he was to deliver a major speech on green energy in September 2009. Mr. Biden said the government aid for Solyndra “is exactly what the Recovery Act is all about.”
The next year, with mounting evidence that Solyndra was in dire financial condition, Mr. Obama was preparing to visit the company. Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett emailed Mr. Klain to express concern that “we clearly need to make sure that they are stable and solid.”
Mr. Klain looked into the matter and wrote back to her, “Sounds like there are some risk factors here — but that’s true of any innovative company that POTUS would visit. It looks OK to me, but if you feel otherwise, let me know.”
He told Ms. Jarrett in another email, “The reality is that if POTUS visited 10 such places over the next 10 months, probably a few would be belly-up by election day 2012 — but that to me is the reality of saying that we want to help promote cutting edge, new economy industries.”
Mr. Obama went ahead with his visit in May 2010 and praised Solyndria as a shining example that was “leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future” for the U.S. and the rest of the world.
“You’re demonstrating that the promise of clean energy isn’t just an article of faith — not anymore,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s happening right now. The future is here.”
Five months later, just before the midterm elections, Solyndra announced it was closing its original plant and laying off hundreds of workers. An alarmed White House energy adviser emailed Mr. Klain and others, “No es bueno.”
Solyndra filed for bankruptcy less than one year later.
“They’re good friends, and the chemistry is certainly there between Ron and President-elect Biden,” he said. “They’ve spent their whole lives working in government, they know how the wheels of government work, they know the people to call. They know the agencies to tap into when they want to solve a problem.”
“Ron has friends on both sides of the aisle,” Mr. LaHood said. “But more importantly, I think Biden has the cachet to be able to work both sides of the aisle. I’m convinced that President Biden is going to be on the phone with senators. I think his style will be a lot like Lyndon Johnson, in the sense that he can pick up the phone and call just about any senator.”
Mr. Obama chose Mr. Klain in October 2014 as his “Ebola czar,” a post that lasted about five months. Although Mr. Klain had no expertise in public health, his supporters say he handled the role well and that it was good training for the task of handling the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, Ron Klain got it exactly right,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a post on Twitter. “He got all of government working together in a concerted way and always respected public health and science.”
Long after the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, Mr. Klain reflected on the Obama administration’s response this way: “We did every possible thing wrong. … It is purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history.”
He also was among the Democrats clamoring for Mr. Trump’s impeachment last winter over his dealings with Ukraine.
“American foreign policy has become a cross between the Three Stooges and the Godfather,” Mr. Klain said on MSNBC last November. “It’s an amazing mix of venal, violent corruption, and complete and utter incompetence. The level of insanity, and craziness and venality is just unmatched.”
Mr. Klain clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White in 1987 and 1988. He is married to Monica Medina, an environmental lawyer at the National Geographic Society who led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Obama administration. They have three children.
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