Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, reflects on the first year of the administration.
Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’
It’s been a year since Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. And what a roller coaster of a year it’s been.
The Biden administration blew past its Covid vaccination goal of 100 million shots in 100 days, only to run into the realities of vaccine skepticism, the Delta wave and now Omicron. The president oversaw an unprecedented economic recovery — including the sharpest one-year drop in unemployment in American history — but now faces the highest inflation in decades, supply chain crises and souring approval ratings. Congress passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, but negotiations collapsed over the administration’s signature Build Back Better bill, and on Thursday the Senate failed to pass any voting rights legislation.
Ron Klain is President Biden’s chief of staff and one of the most influential members of the current administration. We discuss what the United States can learn from Asian countries’ pandemic strategies, what went wrong with America’s testing regime, the administration’s plan for tackling inflation, what it will take to be prepared for the next variant, what Klain has learned about what private sector can — and can’t — accomplish on its own, the fate of Build Back Better, what can excite Democrats for the 2022 midterms, the status of relations between the White House and Joe Manchin, how the administration is thinking about the 6-to-3 conservative Supreme Court majority and more.
You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. View a list of book recommendations from our guests here. An edited transcript follows.
Ron Klain, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Ezra. It’s good to be here.
So let’s begin with the pandemic. A number of Asian countries — Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea — have managed to control the coronavirus across all the different waves, including Omicron, much better than the U.S. has. It’s a real difference when you look at the numbers. And they haven’t all imposed massive lockdowns to do it. So what can we learn from them?
We don’t yet know, actually, where Omicron’s going to be or not going to be. I think what we could learn from all countries, though, and what we can teach other countries is that you need to prepare. You need to do the right things. You need a science-based approach.
That’s what we’ve been doing. We obviously have spent all year vaccinating our country — 210 million people fully vaccinated, 80 million people with boosters. That’s a critical aspect of both preventing transmission and also, more importantly, perhaps, making sure that the death toll doesn’t mount as the number of cases rise.
We need to make sure we’re doing a better job on masking and on testing, and we’re making significant investments and steps there. But the core thing is we have to keep on doing what we’re doing that works. Our country isn’t vaccinated enough. Our country isn’t boosted enough. Our country isn’t masked enough. And so we need to fix all those things, continue to make progress on all those things, to get the country to a better place.
I’ll say this, though. One thing we are seeing, because we have gone as far as we have gone, is that, as devastating as the Omicron wave is in terms of numbers of cases, it is impacting us in terms of disruption much less than previous waves of the pandemic. Our economy remains strong. By and large, most schools remain open. The overwhelming majority of schools, in fact, remain open. Most businesses remain open. So the fact that we are vaccinated, the fact that we are boosted, is helping us get through this wave.
But I do want to push you on what the Asian countries are doing because, agreeing with a lot of what you said there, there’s just a step change in the kind of case numbers and death rates we’ve seen in Taiwan and South Korea. There has to be something to learn. And as we think about it, are there parts of their pandemic preparedness that we need to be considering more, or are they just doing something we aren’t?
Yeah. Obviously part of it is the fact that, in the case of Taiwan, it’s an island nation — a little easier to control. Up until recently, you saw the same thing in Australia, of course a larger island continent. And so I think that’s certainly part of it.
But again, I think fundamentally we know what we need to do. We need to continue to execute on it. We continue to need to continue to get there.
I’d also say, look, there’s no question that in our country, like Europe, perhaps less so in Asia, there’s been political polarization around the pandemic. We have vaccine resistance that’s kind of motivated by polarized opinions. We have mask resistance mobilized around polarized opinions. I think there’s no question it has a big impact on how these interventions that every scientist, every expert says you should do, how successful we’ve been in getting much wider takeup on those interventions.
So on execution, the American Rescue Plan had $50 billion in it for testing, which I was thrilled to see when that happened after how badly the Trump administration had botched that piece of pandemic response. But a year later, P.C.R. tests are hard to find. They come back often in seven to 12 days, which is too slowly to be useful.
Rapid tests are hard to find. They’re expensive. What went wrong over the last year on testing, such that there were still such shortages when Omicron hit?
Well, I think it’s the opposite, Ezra, which is we were starting from a standing start. We got the money, as you say, in March. And I think it’s a tale of how quickly we ramped up.
Now, I don’t know if you can ever find a single consumer good in this country that ramped up in production that quickly. We went from about 2,000 places where you could get an in-person test to 20,000 places where you could get an in-person test.
So we took that $50 billion; we invested it; we radically ramped up. True, the virus got ahead of us in December, and we continue to ramp up now. So we’re going to go from about 300 million tests a month to maybe 700, 800 million tests in January, February, per month. And so we’re continuing to add production, add capacity, build up, but these things do take time.
I’m proud of how fast we’ve gone. We fell a bit behind in December. I think we’re going to catch up, get back ahead.
But other countries had cheap and plentiful testing during this period. I mean, even Biden has said that he wishes he had placed a big order for 500 million rapid tests going back months. Are there tools we could have used to have accelerated supply more? Because we are a great nation. You’ve got a big American flag behind your shoulder. Other people can’t see it. I believe we could have had the testing plenitude that other countries did, and there’s something to learn in why we didn’t.
Well, first of all, I think all of those other countries are now suffering testing problems as Omicron gets ahead of their test capacities. We have more in-person testing sites than Germany has. People often cite it. We actually have more in-person testing sites than Germany has. And so, look, I think that we’re just a larger country, and I think it’s taken time to ramp up to the kind of scale and scope that we need to get to our national size and scale. I think we’re getting there, but I think it is a question of logistics and mechanics and speeding up.
And I will also say that those countries built on progress that was made in 2020. And so when we came here, we had zero, none. Zero, zero, zero. And so we had to go from there to where we are. And the European countries, they had made progress on these issues in 2020, and so they were building from a higher base.
I think with all these logistics things that I’ve learned in dealing with all kinds of complex problems, it’s building on a base. And if the base is down here, it takes more time to get up here, and that’s what we’ve been struggling with in 2021.
One of the priorities for the Biden administration has always been keeping schools not just to open but making them safe. I think people forget this, but the rescue plan had — I think it was $130 billion in money that was earmarked for P.P.E. upgrades, for ventilation upgrades. Obviously there’s a lot of fighting about schools right now, and Omicron will overwhelm all kinds of good infrastructure, but where are we on school upgrades?
So we’ve distributed that money to state and local governments. We have a local school system in America, and what I’ll say is I think the results have been uneven. Some schools have taken full advantage of that, have been particularly focused on improved ventilation systems and ways to make classrooms a little more distanced, building a few more safeguards. In other places, the progress has been less dramatic.
The Department of Education Secretary Cardona travels the country, visits these schools, gets out the word about what they should do. But I think one of our great strengths as a nation is that we are so pluralistic, and we have all this state, local, federal mix of things, but I do think this is a case where there are limits to what the federal government can do. We stepped up, we put out the money, we’ve gotten it out the door, and we’re trying to work hard with local officials to make sure they’re using that money to make the schools safer.
The miracle of this pandemic has been the vaccines. I don’t think there’s any doubt of that. And I’ve been thinking about where they can go next and whether or not we’re set up for it.
So something the epidemiologists will tell you is that we got, in some ways, lucky on Omicron. It was possible to have something that infectious but that was as deadly as Delta or potentially even more so. And so I’ve been thinking about what happens if we do get that variant. So let me ask the question this way. Are you confident that we have the scientific, regulatory and production capacity needed to develop and deploy a variant-specific booster in two to three months if we needed that?
I think that this is a goal. 100 days is kind of the goal in the expert community, that from discovery of a new variant, if it needed a specialized booster, you could get it figured out and produced and distributed in 100 days. I know that’s very much what we’re working on.
One reason why President Biden asked Eric Lander to come here to be his science adviser was to have the kind of scientific wherewithal and knowledge. Eric leads a group with our medical teams across all the agencies every week where this is exactly his focus. On making sure we are building the manufacturing capacity, scientific capacity, all the different capacities we need to hit that 100-day standard. We aren’t there yet, but we continue to work on it every single week.
Tell me about building that manufacturing capacity, because I think if we’ve learned anything, it’s clear that the private market alone is not going to build the excess vaccine manufacturing capacity you want worldwide during a pandemic. And I know it’s an intention of yours to build that so that you have a platform not just for another coronavirus variant but for all the kinds of things that mRNA vaccines can do. Where are we now on building that public health level of capacity? And what does the road to actually having it look like?
Well, I think we’re making progress on that. Part of that, if you move to the global context, is having more of these factories built in other countries around the world. So the U.S. would still kind of be the arsenal of pandemic fighting and probably the leading producer of these vaccines in the West, but there would be local capacity in other countries. And we’re working with the vaccine makers — we’re working with other countries, with the World Health Organization, with Covax, the global vaccine organization, to try to build up that capacity. We are not where we need to be.
But I’d also say one of the things we’re learning, Ezra, along the way here is it’s not just vaccine manufacturing and distribution; it’s the last mile. We saw this in South Africa with Omicron. When Omicron hit in South Africa, there was a lot of people saying, “Oh, my God, this shows we’re not getting vaccines to countries outside of the Global North.
And what happened in South Africa was that, indeed, they had millions and millions and millions of doses of vaccine in South Africa, and they lacked, first of all, a population that is willing to get vaccinated. They lacked some of the basic health infrastructure to administer the vaccines. So I think that’s one of the big lessons we’re taking away here — is to make sure that in addition to doing all the high-tech, sophisticated things you and I are talking about, we also do the low-tech things of making sure that there are clinics where people can get vaccinated and the infrastructure to actually get the shots into arms.
That answer reminds me of conversations we had after Ebola when you were brought to the Obama administration as the — I don’t remember what the exact position was called. Everybody called you Ebola czar —
Ebola response coordinator.
Ebola response coordinator. But I always thought “coordinator” was an important way of thinking about that position, that you really did need profound government coordination in these moments. And we used to talk about how globally, domestically, we were not that well set up for it.
So now we’ve been through a yet larger pandemic. Are there things you’ve learned on how the U.S. government should structurally be set up to operate during a pandemic that we need to take into account, going forward? It can’t be that we are optimally set up for it, so are there ways the structure should change? Are there pandemic-specific modes that you should be able to impose with, say, an act of Congress? What have we learned about institutionally that we need to take away from this?
Well, look, I think what we’ve learned about institutionally, first and foremost, is that you always have to be in pandemic response mode or pandemic preparation mode. Covid is a good example of that. Which is, you can view Covid as one pandemic that we’re in the middle of, or you can view it as a series of discrete pandemics — the wild wave, Beta, Delta, now Omicron. And so maybe we look at this as multiple pandemics stacked up against one another.
And the point is that while you’re in the middle of the one, you need to really be getting ready for the next one and not waiting for the existing one to be quote, unquote “over.” That’s one thing we’re talking about as we think about pandemic prevention. Pandemic prevention and response isn’t just about quote, unquote the next one but about what happens as we proceed through this one.
And so we’ve set up a Pandemic Response Office in the White House, led by Jeff Zients. We brought in, for example, recently, Tom Inglesby from Johns Hopkins, one of the leading epidemiologists in the world, to run our testing unit. Tom’s not just focused on, obviously first and foremost, meeting our testing needs here in the U.S. but also thinking about this question of what the long-term testing needs are, how to innovate on testing, how to bring the cost of tests down, how to bring manufacturing of tests up. That’s a key competency we have to build.
Same thing as vaccines. You and I have been talking about the effort that Eric Lander is leading. So we’ve got a lot of folks in the White House focused on this, both in the context of fighting this pandemic, fighting potential future waves of this pandemic and fighting future pandemics.
Something that I’ve seen happening in the government with acceleration, actually, just in the past couple of weeks is a recognition that in pandemic periods, and maybe even not, the government needs to be the first-round supplier of important public health goods. So vaccines have, of course, been the single largest government distribution effort here. But as of this week, I can now go onto a website and order four rapid at-home tests from the government. I’d like to be able to order more, but that’s something pretty different.
Now I hear that you’re going to be trying to distribute 400 million good masks. This move towards an orientation where you can get the things you need for public health directly from the government, what does that represent? What lessons does it represent, and what kind of building there needs to be done?
I want to be clear. What we have now is a mix of public and private sources, which is you can, indeed, go to covidtests.gov and order four tests for free that we’ll distribute through the U.S. Postal Service. But you could also go to major e-commerce sites and buy tests and get reimbursed from your health insurance company for those tests.
You can walk to a local grocery store or drugstore if you want them right now. You don’t want them shipped to you, you want them right now, want to get them right now, go to a retail center and pick up those tests and, again, get reimbursed by your health insurance company.
With masks, it’s the same thing. We’re distributing the 400 million masks you mentioned through retail sites, largely through drugstores, sites where you can get vaccinated. But obviously, all along through the pandemic you’ve been able to buy them online and buy them in all kinds of different ways and so on and so forth.
I think what we’re learning, Ezra, is that we need to meet the public where it is. We need to have options that fit the different ways different people consume. And there are some people who want to kind of buy it in the private market, have their health insurance pay for it,They go on Amazon; they shop the seven or eight different tests; they decide which ones they want. I think we have a system for those folks.
There are also people who are just like, “Send me my tests. I want to go on. I want to get my tests,” and so we’ve built a system now for those folks. And I think that’s the thing that we’re really appreciating. We are different than countries with a single, universal public health system. We have a pluralistic system, and we have to meet all the different elements of that.
I have also one last thing, which is all along, this has been part of it. So in addition to pushing out vaccines through commercial drugstores, which is where the most number of Americans have gotten vaccinated, we’ve also made a big investment that didn’t exist before we came here, in community health centers, in getting vaccinations to community health centers and getting tests. People can pick up at-home tests the past month or two in community health centers. And masks being available in community health centers.
We’re trying just every possible way that people get their health care in this country. We do get our health care many different ways in this country, and I think trying to figure out how to get through all those channels is complicated. One of the things we’ve worked with this year is in some ways the most obvious channel, which is doctors. Your family doctor, your general practitioner, we have increasingly used them to deliver vaccines, and particularly to deliver, through pediatricians, vaccines to children.
It is a much more complicated thing to distribute vaccines to thousands and thousands of pediatricians who have a relatively small number of patients than it is simply to back them up to giant chain drugstores, which can have the capacity to administer many more vaccines. But we learned along the way here that parents often want to get their kids vaccinated by their pediatrician, talk to the pediatrician about the vaccination. So the complexity in our health care system requires a complex public health response, and I think that’s what we’ve been building out all year and we continue to build out.
Let me ask you about meeting the public where it is. Something you’ve touched on in our conversation so far is the way the virus has fed on political mistrust and polarization in the country. It’s turned out to be one of our great weaknesses. We’re less vaccinated at this point than peer countries. We have less masking, oftentimes. The divisions are sometimes pretty grim.
Anthony Fauci, in my sense of it, is still the government’s chief spokesman on Covid vaccines and science. He’s also at this point — and I’m not saying it’s fair, just that it’s real — very polarizing among many of the people who you most need to reach. Do you all need messengers who can go places that your traditional team can’t? Do you have or need a messaging strategy for the people who trust you least?
I think we do. I think we’ve had people from all walks of life do that messaging. Obviously Dr. Fauci is the most well-known face but far from the only face. We’ve worked with Republican elected officials to deliver this message to their constituents. I want to give credit to the Republican elected officials who have spoken up, Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell, who’s been quite outspoken and persistent on delivering a pro-vaccination message. So I think there are those messengers.
I think this question of polarization around vaccinations is very, very complicated. I mean, you saw President Trump get booed when he himself advocated people getting booster shots.
So this isn’t as simple as “Can you put more conservatives out there talking about vaccinations?” You know, it’s something we continue to work away at and make progress on. I think that is the thing that often is lost in this, which is, yes, we are at a different phase in the pace of vaccinations than in March and April and May, where you had these giant sites with thousands of people an hour getting vaccinated.
But even now we are still vaccinating about nine million people a week in America — some first shots, some second shots, some booster shots. But nine million more shots a week. And so this continues to move on. We continue to make progress. Hopefully we can get people over the finish line.
Let’s talk about the economy. I’ve covered great economies as a reporter. I’ve covered terrible economies as a reporter. I’ve never covered an economy that has such a mix of really profoundly encouraging pieces and also really worrying ones. When you look at the economy right now, how do you understand the mix of economic opportunity and challenge?
We have to start with the fact that we still have an economy that’s coping with the consequences of a pandemic, and those consequences ripple through the economy every day. They ripple through the economy in supply chain complexity and shortages that cause price increases for some products. They ripple through the economy in how we choose to spend our dollars, the dollars that we have.
Americans have shifted from buying a lot of services to buying a lot of goods. We buy exercise bikes at home instead of go to the gym. And as a result, there are too few exercise bikes and too many gyms without enough people with them, and that causes impacts on the economy. So I think there’s no question the pandemic still hangs over the economy.
That said, due to the policy interventions that we have launched, including most under President Biden, the American Rescue Plan, we are looking at an economy that is, I think, very strong under these circumstances, perhaps very strong overall. The fastest one-year drop in unemployment in history. We have brought down the rate of child poverty by 40 percent. We have brought down the unemployment rate to 3.9 percent.
So there’s a lot of growth on the employment side. There’s a lot of growth overall on the economic activity side. But you still run into these disruptions caused by the pandemic, and those are things we’re working on.
So one of the criticisms is that these are more connected than you’re giving credit for there. So Larry Summers and Jason Furman, former economists you worked with in the Obama administration, their argument is that the American Rescue Plan, to some degree, maybe, things like the CARES Act before it put too much demand into a supply-constrained economy. And so part of what we’re seeing is too much stimulus in an economy that, as you say, had real limits on what it could produce. Do you think there’s truth to that? Was that a mistake?
I don’t think it was a mistake. I think, first of all, the day we got here, there were about 20 million people on unemployment. Today that number is down to 1.7 million. Bringing down child poverty by 40 percent. I think the human suffering, the economic growth, the economic activity we have helped support is impressive in and of itself.
In terms of the role the fiscal interventions have played in inflation, I think it’s just hard to reconcile that point of view to the fact they just announced today they’ve got record levels of inflation in the United Kingdom. Across the eurozone, the level of inflation is just a little bit less than ours and going up. So we’re seeing inflation throughout the developed world. I don’t think that our rescue plan created inflation in the U.K. or in Europe or in other parts of the world. I think what you’re seeing is that we launched a fiscal intervention that created jobs and growth and that the pandemic continues to throw things out of kilter a little bit on the cost side and the goods-to-market side and all these other things that do add to costs.
I’ve been struck by Biden’s framing of the challenge. And quoting him here, “The best way that I as president and that Congress as a legislature can tackle high prices is by building a more productive economy with greater capacity to deliver for the American people.” Tell me about that theory, with the implicit contrast there to the theory that you just want to slow down demand in the economy, you just want to raise interest rates, you just want to pull back support.
He’s saying you want to change what the economy can produce and bring down prices that way. What does that mean in practice?
Well, first of all, Ezra, it’s important to note that I think right before that, he said the Fed has its role on monetary policy. He’s been very focused on the Fed. He appointed a slate of governors to run monetary policy. And I think the important thing in what you read was what he and the Congress can do is something else.
So monetary policy is monetary policy. I don’t want to take away from the centrality of that, the independence of that, the critical role that places. They’re going to go do their jobs. Now, what’s left for the president and Congress to do? So I think we’ve got to get the frame right here before I get into some conversation where he’s ignoring monetary policy or the Fed or whatever. He’s not. I just want to be clear with everyone on that.
Now, I know what he’s saying is this. And I think the example he used in that speech or another one was the example of the auto industry, which is, look, we have a problem. I mean, I was here in 2009, and in 2009 we had a problem. We had a lot of cars and no one to buy them — hundreds of thousands of cars sitting in lots all over the country and no one to buy them. That was a very bad problem.
Today we have a very different kind of problem. We have a lot of people who want to buy cars and no cars to sell them. And I think what the president’s saying is in the face of that problem, the way to make the supply and the demand curves intersect best for our country, for our workers, for our production, for our future economically, is to make more cars and make the supply and demand curves cross at a higher point. Not by reducing the demand for cars, not by telling people you shouldn’t buy cars but by making cars.
And particularly now we have a special opportunity to make the cars of the future. The president was out and saw the first electric F-150 and drove it on the track. And also went to GM, drove some of their electric vehicles around. There’s a chance to make the cars of the future here in America, create jobs, build a better economy, deal with clean energy and the climate change needs of the future and also over time bring down prices by having a more adequate supply of cars.
And then inside the car thing, we know we have this problem, a particular problem, about semiconductors and the lack of supply of enough chips to power a car. I mean, it’s kind of crazy that the No. 1 limiting factor on how many cars we can build are computer chips. That says a lot about the kind of cars we build now. But that is the No. 1 limiting factor. There are consumers who want to buy cars. There’s a carmaker that wants to make cars. There are workers who want to go to work building cars. And the only thing that’s holding that all back and means those consumers will have to pay more is that we don’t have enough computer chips.
So again, we’ve been working to try to increase the supply of computer chips coming in from overseas, but more importantly, build more fabs in America to make more of these chips. And we have a bill in Congress, the U.S. International Competition Act, that’s passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote, sitting in the House — we’re working with the House to get it passed there, too — that would increase investments to make more fabs in this country so we can make more computer chips. That’s the kind of economy we should build for our future.
I have been arguing, to some degree along similar lines, that the government can do a lot more to increase supply, but one pushback I get, too, is that what the government can do quickly on supply is very limited and what it can do is on demand. You made the corrective a minute ago, and you’re right that Biden is not saying the Fed doesn’t have a role to play here. But you’re not appointing highly hawkish members in your Federal Reserve slate, and you’re trying to extend the child tax credit. I’m not hearing a lot of talk of “Let’s increase taxes to slow how much people can or should buy.”
And so one of the questions that then creates is: Can you act on the supply side fast enough? Demand you can move very, very quickly by doing very blunt things to slow down the economy. To the extent that that is not your theory of how this should work, what are the tools you have on the supply side that can operate on, let’s call it, the two-year time frame, and what are the tools you have to operate on the 10-year?
One thing is working with manufacturers. Look, I also think it’s important to remember while the government has an important role here, we are a capitalist society. We are a private sector economy. We don’t build cars; the government doesn’t build cars. Private carmakers do. We don’t make computer chips. Private manufacturers do.
And so a lot of our work is working with these private sector companies to try to see what can be done to remove bottlenecks. A good example of that is shipping. We put a lot of time and energy into working with the two biggest ports in the country, the Port of L.A., the Port of Long Beach, to run 24/7 so that stuff that’s coming in for our country that’s critical in supply chains gets through quickly. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the pace of shipping at these ports, the pace of arrivals and unloading at these ports. So there’s a lot of little things like that.
We need to, frankly, get more people driving trucks and get more trucks moving on the roads. We’ve had a reduction in truck drivers. That’s a big part of moving things around. That’s also — I think there are some short-term solutions there to really increase the ability to move goods to market and help improve the supply chain.
I do think fighting the pandemic is part of that two-year horizon. If workers are not home sick, they’re at work. They’re making things. They’re doing things. That really helps, so that is also a short-term thing.
I do think some of these efforts to invest in chip making is maybe at the outer window of that two years but is inside that two-year window also. I think we can increase our capacity for a lot of these key inputs. The infrastructure bill is a mix of shorter-term and longer-term things. It takes longer to do some of these infrastructure projects, but some of the investments we’re making can finish projects that have been started or help accelerate projects that are already underway. And we know that one thing where our country’s behind is on the quality of our infrastructure to help bring goods to market.
Again, fundamentally this is a private sector economy. That’s at the core of this. But I do think there are things the government can do to really help ratchet up supply in all these sectors.
Electric vehicles is another example. We know that one thing that’s holding back some consumption of electric vehicles and also maybe some production is lack of charging stations, people’s worry about long-haul trips and things like that. One thing the infrastructure bill does is fund 500,000 of them. Hopefully that’ll be helpful, too.
It is a private sector economy, but one thing that I’ve been struck by when I look at Build Back Better, which we’ll talk about in a minute, when I look at the Innovation Act, which seems unfortunately a little stuck in the House — I’d like to hear how that’s going to get out of there — is a growing sense that maybe the private sector needs clearer signals from the government both directions it can go and also redundancies it can build.
So let me begin this part of the conversation this way. What has the last year or two taught you about the kinds of supply chains that markets left to their own devices build and what kinds they don’t? That maybe there’s a government role to help fortify.
Well, look, I think we talk to C.E.O.s of these companies and labor leaders at these companies all the time and hear from them about the kind of help they need. And often the conversation begins with talk about basic research, making sure we’re still coming up with the ideas here in America that ultimately can get commercialized and be brought to market. That’s one thing we often hear about.
We do hear about clearer signals, more stable policies, long-run direction, investments. Clean energy is a really good example of that, which is that we’ve had kind of off-again, on-again energy tax credits, incentives. The incentives change, so on and so forth.
I hear all the time from executives in the industry that what they really want is long-term, consistent incentives to help make this transition to a clean energy economy, a transition that will create jobs, that will create construction jobs, that will create jobs working in these industries. But the herky-jerky nature and the constantly changing policy nature of these incentives can be a disincentive. One thing that’s really important about Build Back Better is it is a 10-year program of clean energy tax credits that will create clear incentives, a decade of planning for people to know that that’s what our government’s going to help support as we make this transition, as we make this job-creating transition to a more clean energy economy. So I think those are the kinds of things.
And then there’s just a lot of basic problem solving. It’s not particularly glamorous or conceptual, but this ports thing is a really good example. When we came in and we started to hear about all these problems, goods not on shelves, why aren’t there goods in grocery stores? Why aren’t there goods? Is there going to be no Christmas this year? All this kind of talk.
It often came back to the fact that there were containers sitting on the docks of ports. Because there were containers sitting there, new containers couldn’t come. Empty containers were sitting there. Just a lot of basic problem solving. The president appointed John Porcari, a former deputy secretary of transportation, former transportation secretary in the state of Maryland, to be his ports czar and to go work with the ports and try to clean up these bottlenecks. And so I think it’s a whole range of solutions, Ezra.
Let me ask you about the technological directions the government can help push. In my view, the single best policy of the Trump administration was Operation Warp Speed, which I’m simplifying but created both incentives and purchase certainty for pharmaceutical companies to really push on vaccines and to take on huge risks in the development of those vaccines. What other potential technologies should the government have Operation Warp Speeds for?
It’s a good question. I don’t really have a good answer to that. I think we have to be careful about the level of government intervention in the economy and make sure that we’re not putting our judgment in the place of private sector thoughts and consumer demand and whatnot. I think vaccines are a very, very special case, a public good we wanted everyone to get.
So we do need to think hard about these kinds of incentives and programs. Focusing research, focusing the private sector is very, very important, but I think that a combination of ambition and humility is a good combination.
So over the holidays, Joe Manchin said he was a no on Build Back Better, which is the signature Biden initiative right now. The differences between you and Manchin have never seemed unbridgeable to me, so what went wrong in those negotiations, and what comes next?
Well, I’ll let Senator Manchin speak for himself, but my understanding is his view was there were too many outstanding issues that couldn’t be resolved before Christmas. There were things that were in the House bill that weren’t part of his talks with the president that concerned him. And he wasn’t ready to move forward.
Since then, as you know, the Senate’s come back. It’s very focused on voting rights. I think once the Senate finishes its work on voting rights or gets to where it can get to, I think it’ll be time to bring back Build Back Better and have the conversations about the best way to proceed forward.
I do think Senator Manchin is a supporter of a number of key elements of the package. He has been publicly outspoken about things like preschool and child care. I’m hopeful that we can get to a way, a process of talking to him, of talking to other members of the Senate, who all have their views on this, and trying to pass this bill. Passing large bills is hard. There’s no question about it. It took us a couple of months to get this bill through the House. It involved a lot of people. It’s going to take some time to get it through the Senate.
One longtime Joe Biden argument about politics is that politics is about relationships. Global politics is about relationships. Domestic politics is about relationships. And there’s been a lot of reporting — and mine shows the same thing — that at least on Manchin’s end, the relationship between him and the White House broke down a lot. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of feelings that things did not go the way people expected. How does that relationship get rebuilt?
Look, I think the relationship has always been there. It continues there. Senator Manchin has different views than President Biden on a number of issues, and those are what they are. And one of those is voting rights. That’s a very, very, very important issue to President Biden, and it’s hard to disagree with someone on a very, very, very important issue. There’s no question about it.
And Senator Manchin has views on Build Back Better that are different than our views on Build Back Better. But I will say, on the other hand, we have found a way throughout the year to work with Senator Manchin to pass the Rescue Plan, to pass the infrastructure bill, to confirm an extraordinary number of executive branch appointees. So we continue to work with Senator Manchin when we agree with him and when we don’t agree with him. And he works with us on both cases, and I’m confident we’ll get that done.
We’re talking as the voting rights debate happens in the Senate. It sometimes seems to me that Democrats have convinced themselves that passing these voting rights bills this year is their last chance to save democracy. But if these bills don’t pass this year, what is the plan B? What does the fight for democracy look like then?
Well, I think we’ve got to get these bills passed. And I think we’re not going to give up. We’re going to continue to try to find a formula to pass this legislation.
Protecting the right to vote is important. Protecting voters against suppression is important. Protecting the tabulation of votes in an accurate way is important. And we’re going to continue to press this cause and press this case. We’re going to keep trying and trying and trying and see what we can get done.
But on that, Senators Manchin and Sinema have been pretty implacable in saying that whether or not they support the bill, they will not support any kind of filibuster exemption that lets a bill get a simple majority up or down vote. So then when you say you’re going to find a way, what does that way look like to you?
Well, we’re going to have to see. We haven’t given up in the face of obstacles before, and we’re going to keep on working on this and fighting on this and try to find a path forward.
Two of the big policies you passed in 2021 were the stimulus checks and the child tax credit expansion. And something I argued when they were passing and one reason I supported them was that helping people in such a clear, straightforward way would translate. They would have a different relationship with the government. They would support more action of that kind. They would potentially support you more.
And I don’t really see evidence of that. I don’t see evidence that those policies have really broken through, and certainly they’re not evident in your polls. Why do you think that happened? What is your view now on policy feedback loops and their potential?
Well, look, I think that voters needed the help. And I think we did these things because they were good for the economy, good for families. Ultimately, though, politics are about how people feel about the state of the country, the state of affairs, the state of what’s going on.
And so we don’t get to win votes based on counterfactuals, based on the idea of how much worse off someone would be if they hadn’t gotten that recovery payment, if they hadn’t gotten that monthly check. What people know is that while they see improvement in the economy certainly on the employment side, there are problems on the inflation side. There’s just general anxiety because of Covid and its potential impact on the economy.
And I think that these economic strategies take time to really take root, they take time to really be recognized and absorbed by voters and they take time to produce the kind of results that people want to see. I think we will produce those results and that’s what we’ll be judged by.
So at the end of the year in 2022, we have an election. Midterm elections are very much about mobilization. And I don’t see a way of reading the polls and forecasts right now that doesn’t make it look like the Democratic base has a mobilization problem. So when you think forward, what is your theory of what mobilizes your supporters at the end of the year and gets them excited to go to the polls?
That’s a question I’m going to have to pass on. We’re sitting in a federal office building. I’m not supposed to be doing electioneering here, so you and I are going to have to chat about the elections and mobilization some other time.
What makes Democrats at the end of the year, irrespective of elections, enthusiastic about the work the Biden administration has done and excited to see Biden continue doing it?
Look, I think that voters are going to respond positively to the results we produce. And I think those results are going to be quite clear later on this year. I think progress on the pandemic will lift people’s spirits and raise people’s enthusiasm, and they will see that instead of an anti-science, denial approach that we had from President Trump, they are getting a science-based, effective approach from President Biden.
I think when we match job growth with some tapering on inflation here, people are going to see that we have the kind of economy they will live in, an economy where wages already are rising for those people who’ve so often been left behind. And I think those wages will surpass the cost of living and people will be ahead and they’ll feel that.
I think they’re going to see progress on issues of race. They’re going to see progress on the climate and the clean energy economy. I think people really need to see that progress. So I think that that’s really going to be the thing that will increase the enthusiasm people have about their government, and I think that’s where we’re headed.
One thing that we’re seeing as the year begins is that the Supreme Court could play a pretty big role in politics this year. I think the signs of where the 6-to-3 conservative majority is likely to go on Roe don’t look good if you’re somebody who supports Roe’s protections. The arguments about vaccine mandates have both been very contentious between the justices but also, in terms of vaccine mandates, don’t look great. How is having a 6-to-3 conservative court shaping or influencing the way you think about policy or about the governance opportunities or constraints ahead?
Well, I think that we get legal advice before we put policies in place, and we follow that legal advice. And we move forward within that legal envelope. The court is part of that envelope.
And obviously for example — let’s take the latest example. The court striking down or staying our large employer vax or test mandate has a direct impact on our ability to further accelerate vaccinations and further get the work force vaccinated. So we’re going to have to find other ways to get people vaccinated. We’re going to find ways to otherwise try to persuade people, otherwise try to encourage people to get vaccinated. There’s no question that definitely impacts our policy.
I think obviously we’re all looking to see what the Supreme Court does presumably later in the year on abortion and what impacts that’s going to have in terms of action in Congress, action in state legislatures, so on and so forth. So the court is a factor in American life. It’s a factor in how we govern, it’s a factor in how the American people relate to the political system, and that’s something we’ve certainly got our eye on.
We always end the show with book recommendations. You’re in a hell of a job right now, so I’m curious for some books that either have shaped how you view your work as chief of staff in this time or that you return to literally or mentally for guidance or context as you go through the years in the White House.
“The Gatekeepers” by Chris Whipple is kind of the definitive book on White House chiefs of staff and what things are good advice and bad advice, and it’s a book I’ve looked at time and time again.
What did you take from it?
What I took from it is that it’s very important to build a team. I’m a very team-oriented chief of staff and very focused on the idea that I’m an adviser. But also my more important job is to kind of gather advice and present it to the president, even when that advice is advice I don’t necessarily agree with.
And I also really am very focused on making sure that he hears from lots of different voices and that when I come in to see him, usually there are other people around. Or oftentimes other people come in and see him without me being around so he can hear lots of different kinds of candid advice. And that’s, I think, the most important book in this field, as far as I’m concerned, at least.
Ron Klain, thank you very much.
Thanks, Ezra. Appreciate it.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Kate Sinclair, Mary Marge Locker and Kristina Samulewski; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin.