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Political Note #349   Joe Biden’s White House at the highest level

2020               Governing

Joe Biden will not govern by tweet.  He will govern using people he knows and trusts.  Consider first the Chief of Staff, his deputy, and the advisors whose role is to advise (and, perhaps, to take on the odd, difficult job). These people are official confidants.  Critics will note their color and ethnicity.

The Chief of Staff is the President’s gatekeeper, manager of the White House Staff and principal confidant to the President.  Other than perhaps the president’s spouse, no one is closer to the President.  This is a job people get fired from rather than quit. Keeping order is essential for the President’s Chief.

Trump had four Chiefs of Staff in four years.  Barack Obama had five in eight years.  Before Obama and Trump, the only President who had four Chiefs was two-termed Ronald Reagan

Chief of Staff

Ron Klain (59)

Klain is a smart guy.  Born and brought up Jewish in Indianapolis, he is the son of a building contractor and a travel agent.  He was Summa from Georgetown, Magna from Harvard while getting his JD.  He clerked for Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, the most conservative Democratic Supreme Court appointment in the 20thcentury. He went to work for the US Senate and was eventually Chief Counsel to the Judiciary Committee that Joe Biden chaired.  His wife, Monica Medina, is an attorney, has overseen NOAA, has worked in the Defense Department, and has been the Senior Director of Ocean Policy for the National Geographic Society.  She is now the Publisher of an environmental newsletter which she founded  – Our Daily Planet.

In 1992, after working on Bill Clinton’s campaign, Ron Klain became Associate Counsel to the President, coordinating the selection of judicial nominations. He moved on to be Chief of Staff and Counselor to AG Janet Reno and then to be Chief of Staff to Vice President Al Gore.

Ron Klain joined Al Gore’s campaign and then was ousted.  Gore loyalists thought him too loyal to Bill Clinton.  He was left in the wilderness of lobbying and the worse wilderness of aides to failed Presidential candidates.  His return came in in 2008 serving as Vice President Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff.  In 2014,not an insignificant thing in the age of Covid,  he coordinated the government’s response to Ebola.

Senior Advisor to the Chief of Staff

Elizabeth Wilkins (35) (That’s a guess at her age)

Does she get into the room? In person or through the advice she gives?  Either way, this is what she brings.  Daughter of Roger Wilkins (Justice Department, Washington Post) and Patricia King (emeritus, Georgetown Law School). After Sidwell Friends, in between her Yale BA and Yale JD, work on Barack Obama’s campaign and in the administration.  Clerk for Merrick Garland and then for Justice Elena Kagan. Chief of Staff at the DC Office of the Attorney General.  Does she bring her father’s vision:  “I knew no black people — young or old, rich or poor — who didn’t feel injured by the experience of being black in America.”  Elizabeth is married to Graham Lake, who she met in Pre-K, who works still in the DC Attorney General’s Office, and who lived a kind of white male parallel life to hers.  If she gets into the room, is she a complement to Bruce Reed?

Deputy chief of Staff.

Bruce Reed. (60)

Bruce Reed is from Idaho, the son of environmental activists. co-founders with others of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance.  His father was a widely respected attorney; his mother was a six term Idaho State Senator.  He went to Princeton, won a Rhodes, and earned an MPhil from Oxford.

He became a speech writer for Al Gore and was a founding editor of the moderate to conservative DLC magazine.  He was part of the Clinton-Gore campaign and became Bill Clinton’s chief domestic policy advisor.  He was head of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform which had, as its goal, developing a plan for a balanced budget. You could call Bruce Reed a deficit hawk.  Members of the left wing of the Democratic Party have discouraged including Reed or his co-author Rahm Emanuel out of the Biden administration.  They were unsuccessful with Reed.  Reed’s wife, Bonnie LePard, is Executive Director of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. 

Deputy Chief of Staff

Jen O’Malley Dillon (44)

Jen O’Malley Dillon’s dad moved the family from Boston to the outer circumference Route 495 suburbs where he was a school superintendent, principal of a charter school, and chair of a school board..  She is a graduate of Tufts and has made a career of political campaigns.  She met her husband, Patrick Dillon, the Chief of Staff of Iowa’s last Democratic Governor, in Iowa.

O’Malley began her career in Massachusetts answering phones for a candidates.  She worked as a field director for Senator Tim Johnson in South Dakota and for Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.  After serving as deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama, she and colleagues created a consulting firm, Precision Strategies.  Around the same time, her husband founded a similar consulting firm, Hilltop Public Solutions.

O’Malley’s role in the Biden campaign was distinctive.  It isn’t only that she replaced two people who had been managing Joe Biden’s campaign, she replaced Joe Biden’s sister.  Valerie Biden Owens had a major role in all of Joe Biden’s previous campaigns.

Deputy Chief of Staff to the President of the United Statesbwill be her first governmental, rather than campaign, role.

Counselor to the President

Steve Ricchetti (63)

Steve Ricchetti grew up in a western suburb of Cleveland.  He attended Miami University of Ohio and George Mason Law School and worked in health insurance, eventually serving as the chief political spokesperson for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. He headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for 1992 and ran the successful special election effort to elect health care reformer Harris Wofford as Senator from Pennsylvania.  He went to work for President Bill Clinton as liaison to the Senate.  After a stint as a lobbyist, he returned to help Bill Clinton deal with the impeachment proceedings in the House. He stayed to take leadership responsibilities in dealings with large corporations and in regularizing trade with China.  Out of office, with his brother, he founded his own lobbying firm.

When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, Steve Ricchetti deregistered as a lobbyist. In 2012, he joined the Obama administration and replaced Bruce Reed as Chief of Staff in 2013.  He led Joe Biden’s abandoned campaign for President in 2016 and was a senior figure in his successful one in 2020.  Like Bruce Reed, he is not a favorite of the Democratic left.  He’s described by them as a former corporate and big pharma lobbyist.

‘Senior Advisor

Mike Donilon (62)

Mike Donilon is one of three distinguished brothers originally from Providence, Rhode Island.  Terry is Communication Director and cabinet member for Boston archbishop Cardinal Sean O’Malley.  Thomas Donilon was once Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor and is now Chair of BlackRock’s Investment Institute.

Mike Donilon is the youngest of the three.  Their father was a production manager for an industrial seal company and former Chair of the Providence School Board (school committee is the term in New England).  Their mother was a school secretary and head of a union that included secretaries and custodial workers.  He and his brothers aren’t the only members of the family involved in politics. His sister-in-law was formerly Jill Biden’s Chief of Staff and will be the Director of the Office of Presidential Personnel.

Mike Donilon is a graduate of LaSalle Academy (like Senator Toomey of Pennsylvania) and has his BA and JD from Georgetown.  He worked on political campaigns as his career.  A few of the campaigns in which he had a major role include Gubernatorial campaigns (Douglas Wilder in VA, John Corzine in NJ), Senate campaigns (Harris Wofford in PA, Bill Nelson in FL, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse in RI) and Presidential campaigns (Dick Gephardt, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Biden).

His political views?   He stressed that the Biden campaign was about character and values, not issues and ideology.

National Security Advisor

Jake Sullivan (44)

 I included a description of Jake Sullivan in Political Note #342 which was about members of Joe Biden’s staff who deal with the world outside the United States.  I noted that his wife had clerked for Merrick Garland and Justice Steven Breyer. I noted that he has a BA and JD from Yale and an MPhil from Oxford after being awarded a Rhodes. I noted that he was Hillary Clinton’s Deputy Chief of Staff and then Director of Policy Planning when she was Secretary of State.  I also noted that he had been part of a team to pave the way for talks with Iran eventually leading to the controversial Iran deal.  Finally, I noted that Jake Sullivan was Vice President Joe Biden’s principal security aide.  Joe Biden values his advice.

Concluding thoughts

These are not necessarily Joe Biden’s old friends.  They are not his contemporaries. Even the older members of this group are fifteen years younger than he is. The younger ones are thirty-five years younger and more. They are people he has worked with and trusted.  They will be at the center of Joe Biden’s government.  They are also Joe Biden’s political centrists.

There is one more major figure who may prove to be a critical advisor to Joe Biden.  As Vice President, Joe Biden was a trusted advisor to Barack Obama. Vice President Kamala Harris may prove to be a critical advisor to Joe Biden.  She may have been conservative on some issues, but she is not a centerist.


Future pieces will include one on domestic policy and operations figures and one on people who will represent the Biden administration to the public and to the rest of the government including Congress.

Domestic issues and operations

Chair, National Economic Council Brian Deese

Deputy Chair Bharat Rammamurti

Chair, Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice

Director, Office of Management and Budget. Neera Tanden

Director, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Bridget CE Dooling

Director, WH Presidential Personnel, Cathy Russell

Looking Outward

Director, Office of Public Engagement. Cedric Richmond

Press Secretary Jen Psaki

Communication Director Kate Bedington

Deputy director, Pili Tobar 

Director, Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Julie Chavez Rodriguez

Director, Office of Legislative Affairs Louisa Terrell

Deputy director, Shuwanza Goff

Deputy director, Reema Dodin