Ron Klain Looks Back on Biden’s First Two Years as President

    The mood at the Presidential Inauguration of Joe Biden, in January, 2021, carried fewer notes of triumph than of uncertainty. Biden, who had roundly defeated Donald Trump, took the oath of office just two weeks after insurrectionists tried to thwart his ascension, and with his prospects for any significant legislation clouded even further by intense national division. And yet that climate—of imperfect arrival, of glory interrupted—was strangely suited to Biden, whose personal and political odyssey had given him a certain fatalism about life’s vicissitudes. Quoting a fellow Irish Catholic pol, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Biden once wrote, “To fail to understand that life is going to knock you down is to fail to understand the Irishness of life.”

    For much of Biden’s half century in politics, he has been accompanied by Ron Klain, a Democratic strategist who first entered Biden’s orbit in 1986, when Klain, still at Harvard Law School, found work on the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by the voluble senator from Delaware. Decades later, Biden chose Klain to be his White House chief of staff, a pivotal, and gruelling, position overseeing the full spectrum of domestic and foreign-policy challenges. Perhaps because the two men had worked together so closely for so long, Klain—a Jew born in Indiana—embraced the Irishness of life as a guiding spirit for the incoming Administration: don’t let the highs feel too high, and don’t let the lows feel too low.

    Biden prided himself on that homespun recipe for stability, having repeatedly defied predictions that he was finished. There were murmurings as far back as 1972, just after he was first elected to the Senate, when his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident and he assumed, for a time, that he would never find the strength to take his seat in government; and again in 1987, after charges of plagiarism drove him from the Presidential race; and in 2020, after he finished fifth in the New Hampshire primary.

    Every campaign thinks that the pundits misunderstand them, but Biden and his advisers faced an especially broad skepticism. Even after Biden became the nominee, commentators mocked his constant talk of “unity,” his assertions that he could secure enough Republican votes in Congress to pass major legislation when Americans could not even agree on the utility of wearing masks, that a man of his age could win over the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But Klain, a campaign adviser at the time, believed that Biden’s experience in Congress could unlock more ambitious legislation than his critics assumed. When I interviewed Klain that summer, he invoked the example of Lyndon Johnson: “L.B.J. might not have been the wokest, coolest, hippest Democrat, but he’s the person who got the most actual progressive social-justice legislation done since F.D.R.”

    When I visited Klain in his office, in the West Wing, in late January, he had announced, a few hours earlier, that he was stepping down as chief of staff on February 8, 2023, the day after Biden was scheduled to give his second State of the Union address. Klain, at sixty-one, whirs with a low-key intensity. More than one of his peers in the White House told me that he had a helpfully “paranoid” political radar, a catastrophic imagination for second- and third-order consequences that might seem as remote as a global pandemic once did. Klain and I spoke not only about the lessons of the first two years, but also about what might lie ahead for Biden, Democrats, and American democracy; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. At the start of our conversation, Klain motioned toward an unlit fireplace. “That’s where Mark Meadows burned documents,” he said, referring to the testimony of a former White House aide during the January 6th committee hearings. “I have not lit it once.”

    This is a space in which a lot has transpired. Is it a kind of place that means something to you, or are you not a geography person?

    I am a geography person. I’m a history person. And, look, over the years, I have come to this office many times with other people at the head of the table. But obviously it was very different to come in here with me at the head of the table—and with the Zoom board.

    That was a feature of this time. But you’d served under how many chiefs before?

    Nine chiefs of staff.

    And you’d been offered the job, I think, in the past?

    I was, by President Obama, in 2013. But it didn’t seem like the right time. So I passed.

    Wasn’t the right time?

    For family reasons.

    So we’re going to work our way up to the present. But I want to start way back at the beginning, which is to say, you grew up in Indianapolis?

    I did.

    Your father was a contractor?

    My father ran our family’s plumbing-supply business. It’s like a lot of businesses in this country—it was a classic middleman business. And eventually it went under because, basically, contractors started to buy things from places like Lowe’s and Home Depot and didn’t need a plumbing-supply house.

    What drew you to politics?

    It goes back to the plumbing-supply house. In 1968, I was six years old. We had a historic primary in Indiana. Bobby Kennedy was running for President and they needed a place to do an event. They did these events where, basically, they were kind of like town halls, but on topics, and they wanted to do one on small business. “Senator Kennedy speaks to small business.” And my father’s small supply house had stayed in the downtown part of Indianapolis; it never really had the chance to move out to the suburbs. And some Kennedy advance person picked my dad’s business to do this event. Completely fortuitous.

    And so, on a cold morning in the early spring of 1968, Bobby Kennedy was at my dad’s plumbing-supply house filming a town-hall kind of thing. And I got to meet him. And it was exciting, and inspiring, and impressive. And then, a month later, Martin Luther King was killed. Senator Kennedy famously came to Indianapolis and spoke in Indianapolis that night. It was a famous speech—the pain of Aeschylus, all these things—and, all over the country, inner cities burned. But not Indianapolis. And my father’s business was right where the businesses would’ve burned if the city had burned. And even at age six the idea that there was a thing where what people said could change whether or not a city burned or not—it was so powerful and immediate, and I was, like, “That’s what I want to do.”

    At that point, was your family particularly political?

    Not at all. Not at all. Neither of my parents finished college and neither was really that interested in politics.

    Is that the sound of a—

    That’s the sound of the President’s helicopter coming to take him to Camp David.

    The reason I ask about the political environment is, Joe Biden talks in some ways about how his origins owed a little bit to the political atmosphere in the house, how his Dad thought about politics, how other members of his family did. But it didn’t sound like that was something you were leaching from?

    Not my house, no.

    So you came upon it in the way you described, and then what came next?

    A lot of student-council elections, I guess, that kind of thing. And then Georgetown, and here I worked on Capitol Hill all four years. I took a leave of absence to work on Birch Bayh’s last campaign, 1980, and went to work while I was at Georgetown for Ed Markey. Continued working for him after I graduated college, before I went to law school.

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