Zients would replace Sperling as director of Obama's National Economic Council, a post Sperling held for nearly three years, serving as Obama's economic whisperer during difficult fiscal wrangles with Congress. Sperling plans to leave Jan. 1.
Obama announced the change Friday, describing Sperling as "one of my closest advisers and a close friend." He praised Zients as an admired and respected aide in the White House with "a sterling reputation as a business leader."
Zients is a long-time management consultant who joined the White House in 2009 as chief performance officer, heading an effort to streamline government and cut costs. Obama later chose him twice as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and he has been considered for other top posts.
Sperling served in the same top economic post under President Bill Clinton. He's said to be leaving for personal reasons. His wife, a writer and producer, works in Los Angeles, and Sperling has been commuting between Washington and California. Before becoming director of the National Economic Council, Sperling worked at the Treasury Department advising then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner during the first two years of the Obama administration.
"Gene's relentless work ethic, sharp intellect and ability to work across the aisle have been instrumental in our efforts to build a better bargain for the middle class and reduce the deficit while also protecting the most vulnerable," Obama said in a statement. "I want to thank Gene and his family for their service and I look forward to having his counsel for the rest of the year."
Sperling was known for his long hours and for an ability to blend policy and politics with a negotiator's skill.
Upon hearing the news, Kenneth Baer, a former White House budget office official, posted on Twitter: "When Gene leaves the WH, will his workhorse of a coffee maker go to the Smithsonian?"
Zients joined the White House after 20 years of business experience as a chief executive, management consultant and entrepreneur. He was a founder and managing partner of the investment firm Portfolio Logic.
"I am certain that in Jeff's hands, we will continue to have strong leadership of our economic policy team, and his advice will be critical as we keep moving this country forward and building an economy where everyone who works hard can get ahead," Obama said.
The National Economic Council post does not require Senate confirmation. Obama's first director of the council was Larry Summers, a Harvard economist and now a leading contender to replace Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve.
In staying until Jan. 1, Sperling is assured of being one of Obama's chief economic advisers, along with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, during upcoming budget negotiations with Congress, including efforts to avoid a government shutdown Oct. 1 and to raise the nation's debt limit.