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Biden Faces a Balancing Act in Choosing Top Aides With Business Ties

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Later in Mr. Obama’s second term, Mr. Zients led the National Economic Council, where he shepherded new regulations to crack down on payday lending and steered the development of the so-called fiduciary rule — a requirement that financial professionals put the interests of their customers with retirement accounts ahead of their own. The Labor Department rule, which the financial services and insurance industries strongly challenged, was struck down by a federal appeals court in 2018.

Those efforts earned him accolades from some progressive Democrats.

“The government needs talent and experience,” said Dennis Kelleher, the president of Better Markets, which promotes Wall Street reform, and a member of Mr. Biden’s transition review team for the Fed, banking and securities regulators. “People who are going to try to regulate an industry as complicated as finance can’t say we’re only going to hire people who know nothing about finance.”

But his role as a bridge to business during the Obama administration has raised some eyebrows. Mr. Zients was one of the administration’s chief liaisons to executives and lobbyists when anger at Wall Street over the 2007-8 financial crisis was still at its peak. Top lobbyists such as the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have praised Mr. Zients as someone who heard them out.

Describing his desire to listen to business leaders, Mr. Zients told executives at a 2014 event at the Economic Club of Washington, “You are the customers, all of you as business leaders, in terms of growing the economy.”

After Mr. Obama left office, Mr. Zients joined the private equity investor Vincent Mai’s Cranemere fund as chief executive. The private holding company has investors from United States, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East and takes a long-term investing approach in the mold of Warren E. Buffett.

Mr. Zients, who is on leave from Cranemere, also spent two years on the board of Facebook and was a member of the company’s audit committee. He has told people that he had concerns about the company’s direction and governance, and opted not to seek re-election to the board this year. Facebook has come under fire from Democrats for allowing the spread of disinformation and from Republicans who accuse it of censorship.

Jeff Hauser, the director of the Revolving Door Project, said Mr. Zients’s experience working in private equity and at Facebook was particularly problematic and could portend trouble for progressive causes in a Biden White House. And while he sees Mr. Zients’s experience in the health care industry as useful for managing the pandemic response, Mr. Hauser said he was concerned that Mr. Zients could be too accommodating to business as vaccines are rolled out next year.


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