“That was at a time when trying to acquire vaccines from major companies for countries that could not afford, or were not regular buyers, was proving very difficult,” said Gayle Smith, who partnered with Mr. Zients at the State Department to help oversee the implementation of the program. “He held his ground, he was absolutely firm.” The government got the doses.
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Officials across Washington praised Mr. Zients for bringing a business background, team-building abilities and adroit negotiating skills to the federal government. He first served in the Obama administration, twice as the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, before eventually became the national economic adviser.
Then Denis McDonough, the secretary of veterans affairs who served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff for his second term, recruited Mr. Zients to work on fixing the glitch-prone website for Mr. Obama’s health care program. Mr. McDonough said that, as chief of staff, Mr. Zients will be expected to continue acting as a Mr. Fix-It to complicated problems, but also relied on to keep pushing the White House staff to deliver after two years of grinding work and crises including a continuing pandemic and a land war in Europe.
“People are tired, they’ve done historic things,” Mr. McDonough said. And the president, he said, “needs to know that one person is accountable for the effective implementation of big priorities.”
Critics have held up Mr. Zients’s corporate background and personal wealth against him, citing it as evidence that he may not be as responsive to progressive Democrats as Mr. Klain, who was seen as a touchstone for the liberal wing of the party.
“Zients’s record does not indicate similar political sophistication,” Max Moran, a researcher of the Revolving Door Project, a group fighting the influence of Wall Street and corporate America, wrote in an essay published in The American Prospect on Friday. “It primarily shows a talent for making his fellow elites like him, mostly by saying what they want to hear.”
Mr. Zients, 56, grew up in Washington, joining the wrestling team at the capital’s elite St. Albans School before graduating from Duke University in 1988. (He is still an avid weight lifter, according to Mr. McDonough.)