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'He knows how to work inside this government': How Ron Klain's experience prepares him to lead Biden's staff

In selecting Ron Klain as his White House chief of staff, President-elect Joe Biden has tapped a veteran of some of the biggest moments in modern American political history.

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Eric Bradner
CNN — In selecting Ron Klain as his White House chief of staff, President-elect Joe Biden has tapped a veteran of some of the biggest moments in modern American political history.

The outpouring of support since Biden's transition team announced Klain's selection Wednesday evening -- from establishment Democrats and the party's progressives alike -- underscored what could be a singular resume in Washington. He is a political insider who has built bridges to more insurgent Democratic voices.

And he has experience managing a public health threat, to boot.

Klain's experience could help Biden navigate a turbulent moment in Washington, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread and the President-elect faces what could be a divided Congress, including a Senate where Republican leaders in the past have all but refused to work with Democratic presidents.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Klain is a "superb choice" who has "earned trust all across the entire Democratic Party." Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, called Klain's selection "good news and an encouraging choice."

Klain's role in key political moments dates back at least three decades. In 1991, he was the chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, during Anita Hill's testimony -- a committee Biden chaired. Two years later, he led the team for President Bill Clinton that shepherded the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's confirmation.

He later became Vice President Al Gore's second-term chief of staff, and while he left in 1999 amid feuding between allies of Gore and Clinton, he returned to Gore's campaign a year later and became the general counsel for Gore's recount effort ahead of what ultimately became George W. Bush's decisive 537-vote victory in Florida, handing Republicans the White House in 2000.

Klain then worked as a lobbyist and political adviser and was involved in John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. He reprised his role as the vice president's chief of staff early in President Barack Obama's administration, working again for Biden.

He left the White House in 2011, helping lead an investment firm, but returned in 2014, when Obama named him as his Ebola response coordinator -- a selection that was criticized at the time, since Klain had had no experience in managing a public health crisis. Ultimately, just four people were diagnosed with the virus in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and two of them died.

"He brings skills that work across a range of issues. Ron was not a disease expert when he agreed to do that job, but after a few days, you would have thought he was," said Leslie Dach, who led the Department of Health and Human Services' response to the Ebola outbreak.

"He knows how to work inside this government. So sitting around a table with representatives from probably 12 or 15 Cabinet departments, he knew how to get better work and more work out of us, and do it in an integrated way," Dach said. "He doesn't play the bureaucratic game. He respects the people he works with. And that's important. But he also knows how to cut through the mumbo-jumbo; he knows how to put his foot on the pedal."

Klain's experience leading Obama's Ebola effort ultimately turned him into a leading voice during the coronavirus pandemic, during which he has emerged as a critic of President Donald Trump's response.

In late January, Klain wrote a piece for The Atlantic magazine that was headlined: "Coronavirus Is Coming -- And Trump Isn't Ready."

"The U.S. government has the tools, talent, and team to help fight the coronavirus abroad and minimize its impact at home," Klain wrote in the piece, published January 30. "But the combination of Trump's paranoia toward experienced government officials (who lack 'loyalty' to him), inattention to detail, opinionated rejection of science and evidence, and isolationist instincts may prove toxic when it comes to managing a global-health security challenge."

Klain's piece in The Atlantic foretold a series of controversies that later unfolded, including noting that while five consecutive presidents in both parties had looked to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's leading infectious disease expert, for advice, "it is not impossible to imagine Trump being the first to angrily dismiss the counsel he offers if it does not fit with his own poor instincts."

In March, in an interview with David Axelrod for his "The Axe Files" podcast and only weeks into the pandemic's effects in the United States, Klain said the economic impact of the coronavirus would be worse than the recession of 2008 and 2009.

"There's just a baseline level of economic activity that continued, albeit reduced, but continued," he said of that period. "What you are going to see here is virtually all economic activity other than shopping online stopping."

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Klain was one of the public faces of the Biden team's response to the pandemic.

"The Trump administration's response to this crisis has clearly failed," Klain said in a campaign video attacking Trump's response to coronavirus that was released in July. "Donald Trump has waved the white flag in the fight against coronavirus."

In addition to government roles, Klain has been a leading voice in Democratic presidential campaigns -- as well as his party's debate preparation guru, helping prepare Democratic nominees for two decades.

In a 2012 memo, he laid out his approach to debate prep, encouraging candidates to devote time to practicing -- including spending at least half their time on mock debates with stand-ins for their opponents, and focusing on the most likely, central questions to be asked, rather than forming answers to every possible question.

The memo said candidates should start by writing a "dream" post-debate headline. "Your debate strategy -- what answers you give, what posture you strike, what points you emphasize -- should be driven with this objective in mind. As you consider potential answers, or lines, or any other element of debate strategy and tactics, ask yourself: Is this approach helping to win that 'dream' headline?"

He wrote that candidates should develop lists of three things they must say during the debate, and study both what their opponents have been saying and what local newspapers have reported in the days leading up to debates. And they must make their key points, he wrote, in the early stages.

"A stumble, fumble, or gaffe can cost you a debate, right up to the last second," Klain wrote. "But while you can LOSE a debate at any point, you can only WIN a debate in the first 30 minutes. The viewers, the reporters, and even your opponent form a sense of the debate dynamic in the early going."

Klain was for a period on the outs with Biden and his allies after he joined Hillary Clinton's team in 2015, before Biden had decided against a 2016 presidential campaign. But he worked his way back into Biden's inner circle after Clinton lost the 2016 election.

"Ron Klain'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," Biden tweeted Wednesday in announcing his selection.

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