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How White House Chief Of Staff Ron Klain's Record Helps The Biden Administration

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As soon as tomorrow, President Biden will sign his first big piece of legislation, the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief bill. One person largely responsible for that and for shaping the presidential agenda going forward is White House chief of staff Ron Klain. NPR's Mara Liasson has this profile.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Joe Biden ran on competence and experience, and he chose a chief of staff known for both.

CHRIS WHIPPLE: We're seeing a functioning White House. Go figure. And that's a tribute to Klain.

LIASSON: That's Chris Whipple, who wrote "The Gatekeepers," the book about White House chiefs of staff. In the first 49 days of the administration, Klain has had a big win. The relief bill is passing on a party line vote - not exactly what Biden wanted - but the Democrats' tiny majority stayed remarkably intact. Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins was part of the brief and ultimately fruitless bipartisan negotiations with Biden and Klain. But Collins is not criticizing the president.

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SUSAN COLLINS: He was very attentive, gracious, into the details. There was a great discussion.

LIASSON: In those bipartisan discussions, Klain played a silent but useful role, although not one that made Collins very happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLINS: Ron was shaking his head in the back of the room the whole time, which is not exactly an encouraging sign.

LIASSON: In this case, Klain absorbs the criticism that senators like Collins are not willing to give to a president they know and like and whose approval ratings are in the high 50s. In the fight for the relief bill, Klain applied lessons learned the hard way from his Obama experience - don't wait around too long for Republicans to come your way and remember to take a victory lap. Starting this week, Klain will be making sure that short of presenting a Publisher's Clearing House-sized check to every eligible American, Biden will tell people exactly what kind of help they're getting from their government.

If the relief bill is an early success, Klain has also had a big miss. The White House had to withdraw the nomination of Neera Tanden for budget director. But Klain made sure to send the message here on MSNBC that the Biden White House would never abandon its nominees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON KLAIN: If Neera Tanden is not confirmed, she will not become the budget director. We will find some other place for her to serve the administration that doesn't require Senate confirmation.

LIASSON: Translation - in the Biden White House, loyalty is a two-way street. And so far, Klain has kept everyone pulling in the same direction, according to Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director.

KATE BEDINGFIELD: You know, he's a very hands-on leader, you know, particularly in the time of COVID when we're more isolated than we would otherwise be as a team. He's very present. He's very available.

LIASSON: Klain's abilities come from a lifetime of experience, says Chris Whipple.

WHIPPLE: Ron Klain comes in uniquely well prepared for this job - chief of staff to two vice presidents, experience in the White House, knowing Capitol Hill, having been the Ebola czar and, most important, having a strong relationship with Joe Biden but not being a very close friend.

LIASSON: Not being the president's buddy is really important, says Whipple, because the chief of staff sometimes has to be the bearer of bad news.

WHIPPLE: You also have to be able to walk into the Oval Office, close the door and tell the president what he doesn't want to hear. You know, that was a complete failure on the part of Donald Trump's four chiefs, none of whom was able to do that.

LIASSON: Klain has known Biden forever. He was an intern in Biden's Senate office, later his chief of staff, the same role he served in for Vice President Al Gore. Klain oversaw the execution of the Obama stimulus plan, and he's worked in every modern Democratic presidential campaign. His role in the 2000 Florida recount for Gore was portrayed by Kevin Spacey in an HBO movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RECOUNT")

DENIS LEARY: (As Michael Whouley) Hanging off the edge of the ballots.

KEVIN SPACEY: (As Ron Klain) Hanging chads.

LEARY: (As Michael Whouley) Chad.

SPACEY: (As Ron Klain) What?

LEARY: (As Michael Whouley) There's no S.

SPACEY: (As Ron Klain) The plural of chad is chad?

LEARY: (As Michael Whouley) That's great democracy.

SPACEY: (As Ron Klain) Jesus.

LEARY: (As Michael Whouley) Yeah.

LIASSON: The recount was painful. It cost Klain's boss the White House. But it was another important lesson to add to Klain's battle-scarred political resume. Elaine Kamarck, who wrote the book "Why Presidents Fail," worked with Klain in the Clinton White House.

ELAINE KAMARCK: Presidential leadership is unique because it is the intersection of policy and politics. And Ron understands that better than I think anybody that I have ever met who wasn't actually the president himself.

LIASSON: Unlike his boss, Klain uses Twitter a lot. His feed is a running commentary on White House achievements - no surprise there - but also a window into what Klain and Biden think is important. That's the sign of a skilled multitasker, says Chris Whipple, who points out that most chiefs of staff don't even have time to keep a diary. But even for a chief of staff with Klain's versatility, the pressures are about to get even more intense as Biden turns his attention from the emergency COVID relief bill to an agenda he believes could transform the country and determine his legacy, with bills on immigration, voting rights and a gigantic infrastructure package. Whipple says the stakes could not be higher.

WHIPPLE: What's on the line is not just the Biden agenda, but it's the whole idea that governments can get things done. Joe Biden doesn't have a lot of time to show that government can fix these fundamental problems. And that's a huge challenge for any chief of staff and for any president.

LIASSON: Passing a $1.9 trillion bill through a 50-50 Senate and a razor-thin majority in the House was hard enough. The next chapter for Klain and Biden will be even harder.

Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.