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

Jeffrey Zients was tapped to help fix problems with the Obama administration's heath care website.
J. Scott Applewhite
Jeffrey Zients was tapped to help fix problems with the Obama administration's heath care website.

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 health care exchange 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 site. The 46-year old is known as a brainy problem-solver with a knack for cutting through bureaucratic knots.

It was Zients, for instance, whom 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 administration's chief performance officer during Obama's 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 problems with the Obamacare website.

Fred Malek, a long-time Republican fundraiser, adviser to presidents, corporate chieftain and Zients fan, said: "I think he's very well suited for the job. Look, he's not a technology expert but that's not what you need. You have a lot of technology experts being imported to help with this fix.

"What you need is somebody who can manage a team, lead a team, figure out what the most important aspects of things are and drive them toward a positive result," Malek said.

"Jeff is a very good CEO. He works very well with people. He's highly analytical but at the same time has a very nice personal touch which enables him to get buy-in to what he wants to do, to get followership and to get people moving in the right direction," he said. "He understands the world of business. He understands the world of government. He knows enough about technology. But above and beyond everything else, he's just a damn good manager."

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

  • He and Malek led an investor group (that included Colin Powell) that got Major League Baseball to agree to return a team to Washington. But in one of Zients' few high-profile failures, the MLB awarded the franchise to another group. Still, Malek credits Zients with getting city officials in Washington, D.C., on board with the effort, something Malek hadn't been able to achieve before Zients joined.
  • 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 two companies went public. In 2002, Fortune estimated his wealth at $149 million, which placed him 25th on its 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."
  • (Revised at 6:08 pm.)

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    Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.