Summer 2023 | Publication

Washington’s Man of the Moment: The Jeff Zients Story


The ascent of Jeffrey Dunston “Jeff” Zients to White House Chief of Staff embodies the rise of the nation’s capital as a dominant force in American life.  Zients’s personal and professional background distinguishes him as not only from Washington, D.C., but of Washington, D.C.  His biography has all the hallmarks of America’s governing class: credentials, technocratic prowess, and mastery of self-reinforcing networks of businesses and bureaucracies.  Zients’s rise to the pinnacle of national political power reflects not simply the remarkable success of a man, but also fundamental aspects of America’s contemporary political managerial elite.

Early Life

Born in 1966 to Alan and Deborah Zients, Zients was raised fewer than 10 miles from the White House in Kensington, Maryland and attended St. Alban’s School,1 once described as “the spawning ground of the Democratic Party.”2  Alan Zients was a prominent psychiatrist at the Children’s National Hospital whose work on child care was cited in congressional hearings several times throughout the 1970s-80s.3  As chief medical director of Health Management Strategies International in the early 1990s, Alan Zients played a major part in the outsourcing of the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services (CHAMPUS) mental health benefits administration (later revamped as TRICARE, the federally-funded healthcare program for service members and their families).4  This family connection to the healthcare-government superstructure would help propel Zients’s professional trajectory.

After graduating from St. Albans in 1984, Zients attended Duke, where he majored in Political Science, and received his degree in 1988.  Since his time in Durham, North Carolina 35 years ago, Zients has spent fewer than four years outside the Washington, D.C. area.5

Zients’s early career foreshadowed his success fusing management consulting, healthcare, and finance, a perfectly timed combination that would launch him into the highest echelons of Washington, D.C.  While an undergraduate at Duke, Zients took a summer job at First Montauk Securities, an early pioneer in computer-guided investment research.6

In 1992, he joined the Advisory Board, a research company founded by native Washingtonian David Bradley with five employees “work[ing] out of [Bradley’s] mother’s condominium in the Watergate building in WashingtonD.C.”7  Bradley’s initial mission was to answer “any question for any company for any industry.”8  Ultimately, the company focused on “provid[ing] best practices research and host[ing] seminars for 2,500 health care industry members, including hospitals, insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech firms.”9  With Zients’s help, Bradley and the Advisory Board would achieve astounding financial success and emerge as pillars of Washington society.

Mastering the Business of America’s Boomtown10

Zients became Bradley’s partner within three years of joining the Advisory Board, building a management consulting powerhouse.11  Meticulously documenting and disseminating “best practices” appears fundamental to Zients’s thinking; more than a decade later as the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Chief Performance Officer in the Obama administration, Zients described his vision for the organization as “a teacher or facilitator or hub of best practices.”12  Applying those insights, Zients not only formulated the strategy for spinning the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) off from the Advisory Board in 1997, but also piloted the IPOs of both companies, making himself wealthy in the process.13  Zients parlayed his newfound fortune into founding Portfolio Logic in 2003, where he and his partners employed similar institutional research to invest in healthcare and finance.14  Among Portfolio Logic’s holdings were Pediatric Services of America Healthcare, which provided private pediatric nursing and treatment centers, and Amedisys, a home healthcare provider and America’s second-largest hospice service provider.15  By establishing himself as a Washington, D.C. best-practices guru, Zients earned himself 25th place on the Forbes 2002 40 Under 40 list.16  Describing his success during this period, Zients remarked, “[I]t’s important to have people from the community who know city officials and business leaders, who have done other projects in the community.”17

By mastering the business opportunities at the intersection of the administrative state and corporate strategy, Zients amassed a considerable fortune.  He listed 12 accounts and other assets valued at between $5 million and $25 million each on his 2023 Personal Financial Disclosure Report filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.18

The Indispensable Mr. Fix-It

Zients’s preternatural talents as a manager and number-cruncher had become widely recognized among insiders by 2009, when President Barack Obama appointed Zients as the first-ever U.S. Chief Performance Officer.  President Obama tasked Zients with using his private sector savvy to “streamline processes, cut costs, and find best practices” within the tangled web of the Federal bureaucracy.19  Zients’s track record led President Obama to laud Zients’s “superb judgment” and “sound advice,” earning Zients the nickname “Mr. Fix-It” among Obama staffers.20  President Obama then appointed Zients to Acting Director of OMB,21 where he developed a warm rapport with office suitemate Cass Sunstein, Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), and a leading theorist of ‘The Administrative State.’22  During President Obama’s second term, Mr. Zients became the Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, “act[ing] as ambassador” to coordinate information and priorities between the executive branch and the U.S. business community.23  Throughout his tme in government, Zients has bolstered his reputation in national politics by playing the role of ‘Federal troubleshooter’: he managed the technical support effort that rescued, and streamlined the Biden team’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan as COVID-19 Coordinator.24

From his current position in the White House, Zients presides over a sprawling community of self-perceived centrists and technocrats who understand their work as transcending the biases of conventional politics. Former Chief of Staff Ron Klain described Zients as “someone who understands how to make government work… how to interact with FEMA and the State Department and DOD and outside contractors.”25  Then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged that Zients wasn’t “a political animal.”26  This contrasts with Klain, who has worked hard to cultivate relationships with progressives.  As a result of his perceived apolitical status, Zients has drawn opposition from the Left.  Reacting to his appointment as Chief of Staff, Jeff Hauser of the progressive Revolving Door Project worried that someone who became “astonishingly rich by profiteering in healthcare…will prevent the administration from exercising power righteously.”27


The rise of Jeff Zients shows more than just the growth of ‘public-private partnerships.’  His success reveals government and government-focused businesses fusing into a distinct economy and community whose legitimacy comes from proximity to democratic institutions.  Today’s Washington, D.C. reflects neither the dismantling of government by pro- business interests, nor the aftermath of regulatory encroachments on the private sector.  Rather, the nation’s capital has achieved preeminence through a marriage of massive government and lucrative business models, each needed to sustain the other.  Whether the national political environment continues to accept this arrangement that has propelled the prosperity of the nation’s capital amidst declining life expectancy and stagnant economic growth might prove the decisive issue of the decade.


  1. Nominations of Hon. Tara J. O’Toole and Jeffrey D. Zients, Hearing Before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate of the One Hundred Eleventh Congress, First Session, page 148 (2009),
  2. David Plotz, “St. Albans School: Why does the D.C. prep school spawn so many politicians?,” Slate, August 11, 2000,
  3. Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Labor, Social Services, and the International Community of the Committee on the District of Columbia, House of Representatives Ninety-third Congress, Second Session, page 27 (1974),; and Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate of the Ninety-eighth Congress, First Session to Examine the Relationship Between Child Abuse and Neglect, Juvenile Delinquency, and Subsequent Adult Criminal Behavior, page 87 (1987),
  4. Hearings Before and Special Reports Made by Committee on Armed Services of the House
    of Representatives on Subjects Affecting the Naval and Military Establishments
    , House of Representatives One Hundred Second Congress, First Session, pages 122-124, https://www.; and “Medicine’s ‘Hassle Factor’,” The Washington Post, June 8, 1993, https://www.washingtonpost. com/archive/lifestyle/wellness/1993/06/08/medicines-hassle-factor/2370ec26-8d6a-4611- 8101-eac8564968be/.
  5. Nominations of Hon. Tara J. O’Toole and Jeffrey D. Zients, Hearing Before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate of the One Hundred Eleventh Congress, First Session, page 148 (2009),
  6. George M. Taber, “First Montauk Spreads Its Wings,” NJBIZ, August 9, 2005, first-montauk-spreads-its-wings/.
  7. Press release, “Built on a foundation of 40 years of research, Advisory Board Archives, March 30, 2023,; and Harvard Business Review Stories, “David G. Bradley, MBA 1977,” Harvard Business School, May 24, 2017, stories/Pages/story-bulletin.aspx?num=6237.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “The Advisory Board Company,” Encyclopedia, and-business-magazines/advisory-board-company.
  10. Baron Public Affairs, “Boomtown: The Gilded Age of Washington, D.C.,” Baron Public Affairs,
  11. Press release, “Built on a foundation of 40 years of research, Advisory Board Archives, March 30, 2023,
  12. Getting to Better Government: Focusing on Performance, Hearing Before the Federal
    Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security Subcommittee of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate of the One Hundred Eleventh Congress, First Session, page 5 (2009) com/books/edition/Getting_to_Better_Government/-96IoLvP-YQC.
  13. Annys Shin, “Zients is at the Top of His Game,” The Washington Post, October 4, 2004, game/9aa93199-6f4c-43a0-a566-ca53434ce108/.
  14. Press release, “Portfolio Logic completes acquisition of PSA HealthCare,” Securities and Exchange Commission Archives, August 31, 2007, data/893430/000119312507194165/dex991.htm.
  15. Daniel Boguslaw and Max Moran, “The Corporate Past of Jeffrey Zients,” The American Prospect, April 4, 2022,
  16. Kierra Frazier, “Jeff Zients: 5 things to know about Biden’s new chief of staff,” Politico, January 22, 2023, staff-00078916.
  17. Annys Shin, “Zients is at the Top of His Game,” The Washington Post, October 4, 2004,
  18. Jeff Zients, Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report, February 22, 2023, Accessed:
  19. “WEEKLY ADDRESS: President Obama Discusses Efforts to Reform Spending, Government Waste; Names Chief Performance Officer and Chief Technology Officer,” The White House, April 18, 2009, president-obama-discusses-efforts-reform-spending-government-waste-n.
  20. Julia Mueller,“Five things to know about Jeff Zients, who is in line to be Biden’s next chief of staff, Yahoo, January 23, 2023, zients-194620000.html.
  21. Mary Bruce,“Jeffrey Zients to Become Acting Director of OMB,”ABC News, January 17, 2012,
  22. Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie, Wiser: Getting Beyond Group think to Make Groups Smarter. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2015, pages 17-18.
  23. Monica Langley, “The Businessman Behind the Obama Budget,” The Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2012,
  24. Jonathan Lemire, “Jeff Zients is Mr. Fix It. But he’s never had a slate of challenges like this,” Politico, January 24, 2023, biden-presidency-00079145.
  25. Chris Whipple, Fight for His Life: Inside the Biden White House. New York, NY: Scribner, 2023, page 216.
  26. Brett Samuels and Alex Gangitano, “Zients’s ‘political savvy’ examined as he prepares for chief of staff role,” The Hill, January 24, 2023,
  27. Press release, “Biden Risks Legacy by Choosing Zients as Chief of Staff,” The Revolving Door Project, January 22, 2023, zients-as-chief-of-staff/.