Health | Technology | Elections

White House Turns To 'Rock Star' Manager For Obamacare Fix

NPR | Oct. 23, 2013 3:58 p.m.

Contributed By:

Frank James

Jeffrey Zients, then the acting budget director, testifies on Capitol Hill on Aug. 1, 2012, before the House Armed Services Committee.

Jeffrey Zients, then the acting budget director, testifies on Capitol Hill on Aug. 1, 2012, before the House Armed Services Committee.

AP, J. Scott Applewhite

Jeffrey Zients isn’t exactly a household name. But if he can cure what ails the Affordable Care Act website, he’ll be one of the best-known figures in the Obama administration.

Zients (rhymes with Heinz) is the professional manager President Obama turned to in order to solve the by-now-infamous problems with the federal government’s Obamacare website.

Zients was settling into his job as the head of Obama’s National Economic Council when the president tapped him to help rescue the health exchange website. The 46-year old is known as a brainy problem-solver with a knack for cutting through bureaucratic knots.

It was Zients, for instance, who Obama turned to at an earlier point to unstick the “Cash for Clunkers” initiative. That 2009-2010 federal effort to lift auto sales out of the doldrums by underwriting dealer rebates to car buyers had stalled when the computer systems were overwhelmed with requests. Zients is credited with overseeing that fix.

Zients performed a similar managerial feat to break a bottleneck on GI Bill benefits for post-9/11 vets.

“Jeff Zients is a rock star,” said Vivek Kundra, who served as the Obama administration’s chief information officer from 2009 to 2011. “He has an amazing ability to convene the right people, to be pragmatic about problem solving and to focus the energy of the administration on execution. He can close the gap between the theoretical and the ability to actually deliver something meaningful.”

Besides being the Obama administration’s chief performance officer during the first term, Zients served two stints as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.

His OMB experience gave him plenty of experience testifying before Congress. That should come in handy since he’s likely to find himself planted for hours on end at the many hearings Congress promises to have on the Obamacare website problems.

That said, here are few more things to know about Zients:

  • He and Republican establishment luminary Fred Malek led an investor group (that included Colin Powell) that tried to return a Major League Baseball team to Washington. It was one of Zients’ few high-profile failures; MLB gave another group the franchise.
  • He honed his management chops early and hasn’t let them dull. Shortly after graduating from Duke University (summa cum laude, of course, in political science) he became a management consultant, eventually holding the chief executive officer’s job and other top posts at two firms that provided corporate clients with research and management advice.
  • He had a supersized payday when the companies went public. In 2002, Fortune estimated his wealth at $149 million, which placed him 25th on their list of the richest Americans then under 40.
  • His mother, Debbie Zients, thinks the world of him, telling USA Today that he “has a lot of brains up there but he’s very caring and very compassionate.”
Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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