Biden’s Power Broker: How Susan Rice Defied Critics and Created a White House Policy Fiefdom
For more than a year, Democratic lawmakers and like-minded advocates have pleaded with Joe Biden to create a “gun czar” to address the epidemic of violence.
Each time, the president’s team pushed back with force, contending it has the perfect person already in place, someone with command over the issue and extraordinary access to the president himself.
That person is Susan Rice.
As director of the Domestic Policy Council, Rice leads a team of roughly a dozen staffers examining ways to push through modest gun reforms should Congress again falter, and explore new executive orders even if lawmakers succeed.
Her ascendence to the role of point person on guns marks the latest chunk of policy turf over which she has claimed jurisdiction, joining a sprawling portfolio that stretches from policing and racial justice to student loan debt, immigration and health care policy, including a prime piece of protecting abortion rights.
The scope of her fiefdom is as remarkable as how she managed to secure it. Having eschewed a public-facing role, Rice has relied on a combination of internal maneuvering and bureaucratic know-how to place herself at the nerve center of some of the fiercest debates roiling Washington. And she’s further cemented her status with the president in the process.
Rice and Biden meet multiple times a week. As the president prepared for his recent prime-time address on guns, she joined him on several occasions in his residence. Senior aides say Biden’s trust in her is so profound that she can see him whenever she needs to.
“I’ve seen it,” a recently departed senior White House official said of the relationship. “You see it in the meetings. You see how he talks about her in meetings even when she’s not around.”
In interviews with 21 current and 13 former White House and administration staffers, along with two dozen officials on Capitol Hill and from across the party and advocacy worlds, Rice is described as an underappreciated political operator, a pragmatist consumed with putting points on the board, and a process obsessed micromanager. She personally goes through and edits her staff’s typos in the memos they draft.
Rice’s elevated stature in the West Wing has come with fierce loyalty from colleagues and praise so superlative-laden that it borders on deification. More recently, it has led to speculation inside the White House that she will succeed Ron Klain should he leave the chief of staff post. Rice has privately told people in recent days that she has no interest in the job, describing herself as a policy person at heart.
“There is a reason that she is the only person in American history to have led both the White House’s National Security Council and its Domestic Policy Council,” Klain said. “She has unique talents, intellect, and determination to get results.”
But her style has also irritated lawmakers and high-ranking officials on Capitol Hill. To some former colleagues and outside advocates, Rice has come to personify a kind of risk-averse, incremental approach to policy-making that they fear falls far short of addressing the country’s needs — and will ill-serve Democrats in the midterms and elections beyond.
“Rice is seen as a domestic policy lightweight and a block to any good things that happen to cross her desk,” said the leader of one progressive organization, who asked to withhold their name out of fear of angering Rice and the White House. “So everybody who wants to do big things has a vested interest in her desk being as empty as possible.”
Regardless of one’s views on her, Rice’s rise resembles one of the great Lazarushian tales in modern politics. She was too hot to touch even for some in her own party by the end of the Obama years, having become the chief protagonist in Republicans’ investigations into the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
She weighed running for the U.S. Senate in Maine; then saw her stock rise as an alternate to presumptive frontrunner Kamala Harris during Biden’s veepstakes. But both those prospects fizzled. And with little chance of being nominated for a Senate-confirmed position, there was uncertainty about what her next step would be.
In less than two years time, she’s become one of the more influential domestic policy operatives of her generation, sparking another question: What will be her encore?
“I’ve been in the Cabinet. I’ve been national security adviser, I’ve been domestic policy adviser. I feel pretty good about my professional trajectory. And if I leave government and never come back, and do other things that challenge me in different ways, that’s good,” Rice said in a rare interview.
“If I feel a need to come back, and there’s a role I think I can contribute to and I’m excited about doing it, I leave open that possibility, too,” she added. “I honestly haven’t answered for myself the question of … is this the last thing I want to do in government or not? And I don’t feel any sense of urgency to answer that.”
Rice is a creature of Washington. She grew up in the nation’s capital and was the valedictorian at her private girls’ school there before attending Stanford University and becoming a Rhodes Scholar.
International affairs always seemed to be her calling. During the Clinton years, she served on the National Security Council. And when Barack Obama was elected, she decamped to New York to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She was poised to be Obama’s nominee for Secretary of State to replace Hillary Clinton but withdrew from consideration amid fear the confirmation process would become a vehicle for relitigating Benghazi.
Even before the 2020 veepstakes, her foreign policy experience was still being sought: Rice helped informally advise a handful of Democratic presidential candidates running in the primary, including Harris, taking their frequent calls and responding to questions about national security.
The idea for her to take all that history and pivot to domestic policy was first broached in conversations during the Biden transition about what type of role she could conceivably play, either in the Cabinet or elsewhere in the White House. The concerns were obvious. She had three decades of experience in international affairs. There would be a learning curve. But those who’ve worked closely with her viewed Rice as possessing the right skill set.
“The most important element of this job is the ability to move the process within the government and that is the hardest part. That is the part that requires the most experience and expertise,” said Cecilia Muñoz, who headed the DPC under Obama, helped lead the Biden transition and spoke with Rice when she considered the position. “This is somebody who was going to have zero learning curve with respect to how to make the process work.”
During those early discussions, Rice made clear that she envisioned the DPC operating differently than in the past. She pushed for the council’s stature to be raised and for there to be four senior deputies who would allow the team to drill down on several fronts simultaneously rather than shuttle between major issues. She got the structure she wanted, but that centralization came with a cost.
Rice has struggled at times to cultivate close relationships in Congress. Lawmakers have complained that she can be short with them during one-on-one conversations and dismissive of the role Congress plays in developing policy, people with knowledge of the matter said.
“There is no effort at charming the Hill coming from Susan Rice,” one person with knowledge said, adding that it’s “an open secret” among Democratic staffers that when Rice gets involved in an issue, the process is bound to become more difficult.
In one tone-setting episode at the beginning of the administration, Rice grew frustrated with Senate Democrats over a perceived delay in getting Miguel Cardona confirmed as Education secretary, going as far as to air her complaints directly to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chaired the committee in charge of his nomination, a person with knowledge of the back-and-forth said.
The incident was memorable for Rice’s willingness to confront a senior Democrat so early on in the administration — and because it was eventually discovered that the delay was the fault of the White House, which had simply been slow to file necessary paperwork.
Others downplayed any distance between DPC and the Hill, pointing to the scores of meetings — by one count, more than 130 — that Rice has participated in with members. During last year’s burst of congressional negotiations on policing and social and climate spending, Rice spoke with several lawmakers a day. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close Rice ally, asked her to brief his whips meeting, and she touched base with progressives, moderates and some Republicans such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), before Cheney was removed from GOP leadership.
“I have not found anything to be dissatisfied with,” Clyburn said, calling himself one of Rice’s “biggest fans.” “I have full faith and confidence in her as a human being and as a professional.”
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), another lawmaker close with Rice, countered the notion that she’s on the outs with senators. In their first conversation after she took the DPC job, he talked about including the child-tax credit expansion in Biden’s Covid-relief bill at a time when it was uncertain if it would be in there. “I think I sent her the longest text message I ever sent anybody on a Sunday night and I woke up the next morning and it was in the plan,” said Bennet. “I think she had a lot to do with that.”
The debate over gun policy, however, has added a layer of strain to the Rice-Hill relations. Democrats led by Reps. Joe Neguse of Colorado and Lucy McBath of Georgia have argued that the president needs to appoint a director of gun violence prevention. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leading party voice on guns, has echoed their call.
While those demands are not explicit critiques of the job Rice is doing, the clear implication is that they believe housing the policy response inside the DPC is insufficient. As one Democratic lawmaker put it, Rice “says the right things” to them during meetings, but then action on guns is “pushed aside for other policies.”
So far, the White House isn’t budging. Officials note that Biden has signed four packages on gun-violence reduction through executive order, outpacing the previous administrations at this point in their histories. They maintain that if not for Rice making issues like community violence intervention a priority, far less would have been done already. And they say she’s looking closely at how they could do more.
“That is just impossible work to do because it is so hard to make progress on gun violence through executive action,” said White House Counsel Dana Remus, who has worked closely with Rice. “But she and her team have been so creative on how to make progress.”
Rice is tough and blunt, say those who have worked with her through the years. She is the opposite of a lofty idealist. One aide called her “a process perfectionist.” Others described her as overly rigorous, Socratic, and “really academic.”
“She’s no bullshit, you always know where you stand with her. She’s very decisional,” said a former White House official. “She just doesn’t really suffer fools.”
Compiling Rice’s so-called “decision packages” are a vivid illustration of her approach to the job. The thick documents have taken on quasi-legendary status inside the DPC. They lay out an issue, the policy background and where each Cabinet secretary stands on them. Rice has been known to personally log phone calls to the Cabinet to fact-check the documents and comb them for typos. Occasionally, she and her staff will go through as many as a dozen variations of the packages before signing off.
“She’s not the friendliest person you’ve ever come across,” a former senior administration official who worked with Rice said, “but I think she’s also respectful.”
Rice’s toughness can manifest itself in different ways.
One is her notoriously sharp tongue and proclivity for profanity that intimidates some and endears her to others.
“We’ve been in the Situation Room, we’ve been in the Cabinet Room. We’ve been in each other’s houses and she’s a person who is not afraid to express her opinions in as direct a way as possible,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said last year as Rice began steering the council. “She’s strategic in the use of [profanity], but if there were a guy saying these things, this would not be a reportable thing.”
The other is in her territorialism. Rice bristles at those in the administration who she believes are encroaching on her turf. She and her staff have issued reminders to others in the White House that paper needs to be run by DPC beforehand. They’ve thrown brush-back pitches at VP staff on maternal mortality and voting rights.
“She’s like, ‘Why is this person proposing policy? We are the policy makers and that person is already at the table,’” said another White House official.
The boundaries of Rice’s coverage area have grown in time. Her office has been involved in addressing mental health and efforts to ban menthol cigarettes, expand second-chance opportunities for people incarcerated and address racial and ethnic bias in home appraisals.
Progressives believe she has used that power to weaken the link between the DPC and the liberal intellectual community that spent the last several years crafting the party’s most ambitious policy proposals. Among other things, they accuse Rice of opposing broad-based student debt forgiveness.
But unlike some of her colleagues who have warned against any debt relief on grounds that it would be inflationary, Rice has made it clear to colleagues that she supports offering income-capped debt relief to the vast majority of borrowers. And according to two White House officials, she’s been appalled at press coverage that suggests she’s betraying her family’s legacy by standing in the way of broader relief. Her late mother, Lois Rice, helped design the federal Pell Grant system.
“Sometimes we joke about how she’s the only one [internally] fighting for advocating for debt relief when she’s painted as against it,” a White House official said.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and one of the most high-profile progressives pushing the White House to embrace an expansive student debt cancellation plan, said Rice is a pragmatist. But she also argued that it has boosted her standing in the West Wing — even as it’s frustrated outside advocates and lawmakers.
“She’s asking advocates to not just advocate for their side, but be able to answer the hard questions that will inevitably come up, and I think that surprises people,” said Weingarten. “If you’re not used to it, it’s very daunting.”
It’s been on immigration policy — not student loan relief — where Rice has found herself most at odds with people inside the administration and the party’s liberal wing.
Soon after joining the administration, Rice concluded that many of the administration’s immigration specialists weren’t suited to running the crisis-level response needed to manage the record number of migrants arriving at the border, two former officials said. She complained that they were unresponsive to Biden’s concerns, ultimately opting to bring in an outside adviser — Obama-era national security official Amy Pope — to coordinate the effort.
Rice also butted heads with Department of Health and Human Services personnel early on. She felt HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra lacked relevant experience on the issues and was hesitant to get in there and try — and some DPC staff saw Becerra as worried about his own political exposure to the issues at the border, according to a former official who worked closely with Rice. HHS has disputed the criticism leveled at Becerra, pointing to his extensive work on immigration issues over more than two decades as a member of Congress.
People familiar with the dynamics at the time said she also perceived Harris as ducking responsibility for addressing the border surge.
“She didn’t have a lot of patience for that and felt like [Harris was] making distinctions that were cutting it too fine,” the same former official said.
An additional point of contention was over the number of unaccompanied children that could be transferred into HHS shelters. With limited shelters available, Rice pushed HHS to exceed its traditional capacity limits to get more migrant children out of the sparse border facilities at the center of the immigration crisis.
Matters again came to a head over the administration’s plan to lift Title 42, the Trump-era pandemic rule designed to slow the spread of Covid-19. Colleagues said Rice didn’t agree with lifting the order, warning it would be inconsistent to open up the border when the administration was telling Americans how dangerous the virus and being unvaccinated was.
The tensions simmered for months until a judge made the matter moot by saying the administration did not follow proper protocol in ending the order.
The White House has tried to downplay discord in its ranks. In an interview, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Rice brought objectivity to the issue because she remains “relatively new” to immigration.
He called her eager to dive into the work, noting she immersed herself in the operational challenges of setting up new HHS shelters and the need to speed up reunifying migrant children with their qualified U.S. sponsors.
“She just asks questions, many ‘what ifs,’” said Mayorkas. “And really, quite frankly, strengthens not only the development of policy but the implementation of policy.”
Another senior administration official, however, was more frank in an assessment of Rice’s role when permitted to speak anonymously.
“If you asked me what the White House vision is for immigration and migration and the border, I couldn’t tell you,” the senior official said. For Rice, “it always comes back to punitive measures” to deter migrants.
A White House official pushed back on that sentiment in a statement, saying the president’s “robust affirmative immigration agenda — from expanding legal migration channels to speeding up the asylum process and providing more opportunities for temporary workers — speaks for itself.” Rice, the official said, has been “a great champion of all of it.”
For all the high-profile issues on which she’s involved, Rice’s biggest success to date may be in helping draft the long-sought executive order that takes a step in addressing racism and police accountability.
The process began after negotiations over police reform blew up in Congress. Rice authored the “decision memo” on the matter, which was no easy lift. She needed to craft something that would be amenable to law enforcement organizations, civil rights groups and the families of people killed or injured by police. It grew more complicated after an early draft leaked, making the process “10,000 times harder,” as Remus, Rice’s partner in putting the deal together, put it.
Jim Pasco, the executive director for the Fraternal Order of Police, said his group was “pretty upset” since the leak was at odds with his group’s understanding of what the executive orders would look like. But Rice called him on a Sunday and asked for a restart, with the promise of a tighter group of negotiators and a pledge they operate in the cone of silence.
“You can say whatever you want. You can spit on the document. You can throw up on the document,” she told him. To which Pasco replied: If they did their jobs, they’d both want to vomit on the damn order.
After Biden signed the order in late May, Rice made sure her staff got a photo with the president and Harris. Afterwards, she invited aides to a small happy hour she planned on the second gentleman’s balcony.
Staff clamored to take another photo — this one with Rice herself.
It was a moment of celebration in an administration that has had few of late. It was also, for those involved, validation of their work and of their boss’ approach at DPC: blunt, process-heavy and determined to make progress, even slightly.
“I knew she was a real tough cookie — and prickly, at that. I came into it expecting it’s all going to be knock-down and drag-out,” Pasco recalled. “But while she was every bit as tough a negotiator as I’d ever heard she was, I actually enjoyed the give and take with her because of her manner.”