For the first few weeks, it took White House staffers by surprise. There would be a quiet knock at their door (if their office had a door). And then an unexpected visitor — their boss — walked in.
Since taking over as chief of staff, Jeff Zients has spent much of his days moving through the West Wing. Often, instead of responding to questions via email, he’ll do so in person, popping upstairs to see senior adviser Anita Dunn, or down to the basement to see speechwriters and checking in on various teams clustered throughout the building, according to several staffers familiar with Zients’ roaming.
Recently, after dropping in on National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, he joined the NSC’s all-staff meeting that had been underway. Zients has also wandered across West Executive Drive and into the EEOB, as he did last week for Ike’s Taco Tuesday lunch, the staffers said.
“Jeff is definitely getting his steps in,” one staffer quipped.
Zients is known as an experienced manager comfortable with delegating assignments down the chain of command and setting internal deadlines for goals, results and determining next steps. But he has also spent his early time in the chief of staff role brandishing his accessibility and building relations. It’s not just the random stop-bys and taco noshing. Starting this week, he will start holding town halls on campus to facilitate more direct communication among staff. The first is set for Friday.
The meetings, which will be open to several dozen aides chosen by lottery to attend in person, will provide “an opportunity to hear from senior staff on policy and priorities and for staff to provide feedback to the Chief of Staff and White House leadership,” one White House official told West Wing Playbook.
The plan is for Zients and one or two other senior officials to give a short presentation at the outset and then open things up for roughly 45 minutes of questions, the official said.
It’s not clear how frequently the gatherings will take place, possibly every few months, but more are in the offing to accommodate those who aren’t invited to this week’s, which will take place in the EEOB’s South Court auditorium. And all administration staffers will get a Zoom link to watch live.
The town hall idea comes on top of other traditions Zients has implemented inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., including Wednesday morning bagel deliveries from Call Your Mother, the D.C. franchise he helped start.
Zients has also penned hand-written thank you notes to several staffers and continues to utilize the chief of staff’s office — and outdoor patio — for Friday happy hours. According to people familiar with the gatherings, he’s held recent happy hours for members of the budget team and for those involved in the reopening of the Navy Mess, the basement cafeteria where staffers with access often eat breakfast and lunch.
Zients is a familiar face to many given his work leading the administration’s early Covid-19 response and, last year, a quiet effort to manage staff transitions following the midterms. And at Biden’s request last year, he helped oversee the building and launch of the government website for the administration’s student loan forgiveness program, working with the Office of Management and Budget and Dept. of Education to ensure the site, where people can determine if they qualify, was operational. The role, which has not been reported on previously, was a reprisal of Zients’ initial work with then-Vice President Biden to fix the glitch-prone online healthcare marketplace during the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act roll-out in 2013.
Despite all that history, he also embarks on the staff outreach from the perch of a relative outsider in a White House filled with longtime Biden loyalists. His predecessor, Ron Klain, had worked with the president for decades and had years-long relationships with other staffers and Democratic lawmakers.
Zients, who is an increasingly active caller and texter (although this reporter’s most recent text to Zients went unresponded to 🙁), has worked to keep in touch with staff in the building and a growing number of key allies on the Hill. According to a person familiar with the conversation, he texted Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the House Progressive Caucus who had a close relationship with Klain, on Tuesday to discuss her Seattle Times op-ed praising Biden’s economic agenda.