Ron Klain is the ultimate Democratic insider. During the Clinton administration, he served as chief of staff to Vice-President Al Gore (and was subsequently portrayed by Kevin Spacey in the HBO movie Recount). During the Obama years, he was then-Vice-President Biden’s chief of staff and later coordinated the U.S. response to Ebola. His career culminated as President Biden’s chief of staff, a role he left in February after two years. Klain, who is generally liked by both the progressive and moderate wings of his party, turned over the reins to Jeff Zients, who has aroused more suspicion on the party’s left flank. In the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, Klain discusses why he thinks Zients is a logical choice, Vice-President Kamala Harris’s political skills, and more. Below is a section of that conversation.
On With Kara Swisher
Kara Swisher: So I saw your going-away speech back in February. It was emotional. You cried. When you think about what you weren’t able to get done, what makes you teary right now?
Ron Klain: I think two things really stand out in my mind immediately. One is voting rights. The Speaker made a big effort to get that done, and did an incredibly great job of getting it through the House, but we could not get the votes in the Senate to override the filibuster. We have a huge crisis of democracy in this country. We have a lot of states where voting-rights laws are being rolled back, and I think the federal government needs to do something.
And we need to do something about guns. We were able to pass a bipartisan gun bill that had some helpful measures after the tragedies in Texas and Buffalo, but obviously we still have way too many assault weapons on the streets. They’re way too easy to get. They’re way too widely dispersed. I worked for then-Senator Biden when we passed the ban on assault weapons through the Senate the first time way back in the 1990s, and it’s time to do that again.
Swisher: Let’s move on to your successor, Jeff Zients. The left has been very wary of him compared to you. He was a business-friendly private-equity guy, a deficit hawk. What was the calculus behind shifting to him from you? You told Chris Whipple that you thought the job would go to a woman.
Klain: I had thought that earlier on, but Jeff was the logical choice. He had experience in the Biden White House running the COVID response. He’s someone the president knew and trusted. He’s a very good manager, good leader. And I think he’s off to a very good start.
Swisher: I’m curious why you thought it was going to go to a woman and it didn’t. Why was he the obvious choice?
Klain: Because I think the president wanted to bring someone back to the White House who had been there previously, who knew him and the team, but would be additive to come back in as opposed to taking someone who was there and promoting that person. And Jeff had done a very good job running the COVID response.
Swisher: Will there ever be a woman White House chief of staff?
Klain: I hope so. There should be.
Swisher: Yeah. It would be nice for once.
Klain: Yeah. I was proud of the fact that we were the first White House in history that had a majority of the senior staff that was female. The majority of the whole White House staff was female; the majority of the senior staff was female. The first Cabinet in history where the Cabinet was equally balanced between men and women. And I think that was very helpful to our administration. And someday there should be a female White House chief of staff, no question about it.
Swisher: Let me then ask you about Vice-President Harris. The New York Times said you were her most important internal ally. According to Chris Whipple, Biden said the vice-president is a “work in progress.” Now that you’re gone, who’s her biggest booster?
Klain: I think the president has always been her biggest booster and remains that. And I know that my successor, Jeff Zients, works with her very closely. I think Vice-President Harris has done an excellent job. I think she takes a lot of grief unjustifiably, and that being a vice-president is a very, very tough job. Because this is a country that always thinks dubiously about someone who’s the No. 2. We’re a No. 1 kind of country. I lived with that when Al Gore and Joe Biden were vice-president. She makes a major contribution to the administration, and I think hopefully she’ll get more and more recognized for that.
Swisher: Why hasn’t she been able to shake the perception that she’s bad at her job? And give me a little more of a nuanced answer. I know sexism and racism are huge problems, but that doesn’t explain all the bad press.
Klain: Well, I do think sexism and racism are part of the problem, no question about it. I think she was not as well known in national politics before she became vice-president. And I think that she hasn’t gotten the credit for all that she’s done. She’s done a lot of very hard work and been very successful as vice-president. And I think hopefully during the campaign season, the American people will get more of a chance to see her on the stump and get to know her a little better.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Rafaela Siewert, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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