For more than a year, Democratic lawmakers and allies have pushed with Joe Biden to appoint a “gun czar” to combat the violence epidemic.
Each time, the president’s administration fought back vehemently, claiming to already have the ideal person in place, someone with command of the situation and unprecedented access to the president himself.
Susan Rice is the person in question.
Rice leads a team of about a dozen workers at the Domestic Policy Council, which is looking into ways to push through modest gun reforms if Congress fails again, as well as new executive orders if lawmakers succeed.
Her appointment as the White House’s point person on guns is the latest addition to a wide-ranging portfolio that includes everything from policing and racial justice to student loan debt, immigration, and health-care policy, including a key component of defending abortion rights.
Her fiefdom’s scope is as impressive as the manner in which she acquired it. Rice has avoided the spotlight by relying on a combination of internal manoeuvring and bureaucratic know-how to position herself at the centre of some of Washington’s most divisive issues. In the process, she’s solidified her relationship with the president.
Rice and Biden have weekly meetings. She visited the president in his mansion on multiple occasions as he prepared for his recent prime-time address on weapons. Biden’s faith in her is so strong, according to senior aides, that she can see him whenever she needs to.
A recently departed top White House official remarked of the relationship, “I’ve seen it.” “You can see it in meetings.” You can see how he mentions her in meetings even when she isn’t present.”
Rice is described as an underappreciated political operator, a pragmatist obsessed with putting points on the board, and a process obsessed micromanager in interviews with 21 current and 13 former White House and administration staffers, as well as two dozen officials on Capitol Hill and from across the party and advocacy worlds. She proofreads and corrects her staff’s errors in the memoranda they write.
Rice’s rise in the West Wing has been accompanied by strong loyalty from coworkers and praise so lavish that it borders on deification. It has recently sparked talk within the White House that she will succeed Ron Klain as chief of staff if he steps down. Rice has informally stated in recent days that she is uninterested in the position, describing herself as a policymaker at heart.
“There’s a reason she’s the only person in American history to have commanded both the National Security Council and the White House Domestic Policy Council,” Klain explained. “She possesses exceptional abilities, intelligence, and a strong desire to succeed.”
On Capitol Hill, though, her demeanour has offended lawmakers and high-ranking officials. Rice has come to personify a risk-averse, cautious approach to policymaking that some former colleagues and outside activists think falls well short of meeting the country’s needs — and could hurt Democrats in the midterms and beyond.
“Rice is perceived as a domestic policy lightweight and a stumbling block to any good initiatives that happen to pass her desk,” said the head of one progressive organisation, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of upsetting Rice and the White House. “Everyone who aspires to accomplish great things wants her desk to be as empty as possible.”
Rice’s rise recalls one of the great Lazarushian narratives in modern politics, whatever of one’s opinion of her. By the conclusion of Obama’s presidency, she had become the central figure in Republican inquiries of the attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi, making her too hot to handle even for some in her own party.
She considered running for the United States Senate in Maine, and then saw her popularity soar as an alternate to probable frontrunner Kamala Harris during Vice President Joe Biden’s veepstakes. Both of those possibilities, however, were dashed. And, with a slim probability of being nominated for a Senate-confirmed position, she was unsure what she should do next.
In less than two years, she’s risen to become one of her generation’s most powerful domestic policymakers, prompting a new question: what will be her encore?
“I was a member of the Cabinet.” I’ve served as both a national security and a domestic policy adviser. I’m pretty pleased with my work path. And it’s fine if I leave government and never return, as long as I pursue other things that push me in new ways,” Rice remarked in a rare interview.
“I leave open the idea of returning if I feel compelled to do so and there’s a role I think I can contribute to and am enthusiastic about,” she continued. “I honestly haven’t answered the question of whether or not this is the last thing I want to do in government.” And I don’t feel compelled to respond to that.”
Rice is a Washington product. She was valedictorian at her exclusive girls’ school in the nation’s capital as a child before attending Stanford University and becoming a Rhodes Scholar.
Her calling had always seemed to be international affairs. She was a member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. After Barack Obama’s election, she relocated to New York to serve as the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations. She was set to be Obama’s Secretary of State nominee to succeed Hillary Clinton, but she withdrew from consideration due to concerns that the confirmation process would be used to reopen the Benghazi investigation.
Rice’s foreign policy skills was still in demand even before the 2020 presidential election: she helped informally advise a handful of Democratic presidential contenders campaigning in the primary, including Harris, by accepting their calls and answering their concerns about national security.
The concept for her to take all of her experience and apply it to domestic policy was initially discussed during the Biden transition, when people were discussing what kind of position she could play in the Cabinet or elsewhere in the White House. It was clear that there were concerns. She had worked in foreign affairs for three decades. There would be an adjustment period. Rice, on the other hand, is seen as having the right skill set by those who have worked closely with her.
“The capacity to move the process inside the government is the most crucial aspect of this position, and it’s also the most difficult component.” “That is the element that demands the most experience and skill,” said Cecilia Muoz, who led the DPC under Obama, assisted in the Biden transition, and spoke with Rice about the role when she was considering it. “This is someone who would have no learning curve in terms of how to make the process function.”
Rice made it plain throughout those early meetings that she saw the DPC operating differently than in the past.She fought for the council’s status to be elevated and for four senior deputies to be appointed, allowing the team to focus on multiple fronts at once rather than switching between significant topics. She achieved the framework she sought, but it came at a price: centralization.
Rice has struggled to build intimate connections with members of Congress at times. According to those familiar with the situation, lawmakers have complained that she can be abrupt with them during one-on-one talks and dismissive of the role Congress plays in policy development.
“Susan Rice makes no attempt to charm the Hill,” one source said, adding that it’s “an open secret” among Democratic employees that when Rice becomes engaged in an issue, the process is certain to get more difficult.
Rice became frustrated with Senate Democrats over a perceived delay in getting Miguel Cardona confirmed as Education Secretary, going so far as to complain directly to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chaired the committee in charge of his nomination, according to a person familiar with the back-and-forth.
Rice’s willingness to face a top Democrat so early in the administration made the encounter memorable — yet it was later revealed that the delay was caused by the White House, which had merely been sluggish to file appropriate paperwork.
Others disputed any rift between DPC and the Hill, citing Rice’s attendance at dozens of meetings — at one count, more than 130 — with members. Rice met with many lawmakers per day during last year’s flurry of congressional deliberations on policing, social, and climate expenditures. Rice ally Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) asked her to brief his whips conference, and she met with progressives, moderates, and some Republicans, including Rep. Liz Cheney (R-VA) (R-Wyo.),
Clyburn, who calls himself one of Rice’s “greatest fans,” stated, “I have not found anything to be displeased with.” “As a human being and a professional, I have complete faith and confidence in her.”
Another politician close to Rice, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), refuted the notion that she is feuding with senators. He talked about incorporating the child-tax credit expansion in Biden’s Covid-relief measure in their first call after she took the DPC post, at a time when it was unclear if it would be included. “I think I sent her the longest text message I’ve ever given anyone on a Sunday night, and when I woke up the next morning, it was all in the plan,” Bennet said. “I believe she played a significant role in that.”
The battle over gun legislation, on the other hand, has put a strain on Rice-Hill ties. Democrats have suggested that the president should designate a director of gun violence prevention, led by Reps. Joe Neguse of Colorado and Lucy McBath of Georgia. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a strong gun control advocate in the Democratic Party, has backed their appeal.
While such demands are not open criticisms of Rice’s work, the clear subtext is that they believe the DPC’s policy response is insufficient. Rice “says the right things” to them during meetings, but action on firearms is “pushed aside for other topics,” according to one Democratic legislator.
So far, the White House has refused to budge. Biden has signed four executive orders on gun violence reduction, officials say, exceeding prior administrations at this time in their histories. They claim that significantly less would have been done if Rice hadn’t made matters like community violence intervention a priority. They said she’s thinking about how they can help more.
“That is just tough work to undertake because executive action on gun violence is so difficult,” White House Counsel Dana Remus, who has worked closely with Rice, said. “However, she and her team have come up with some really innovative ways to achieve progress.”
Those who have worked with Rice over the years describe her as demanding and blunt. She is the polar opposite of a high-minded idealist. She was dubbed “a process perfectionist” by one of her aides. Others described her as “very intellectual,” “overly rigid,” and “Socratic.”
“She isn’t a knucklehead; you always know where you stand with her.” “She makes snap decisions,” a former White House official claimed. “She just doesn’t put up with fools.”
Rice’s “decision packages,” which she compiles, are a clear indication of her approach to the work. Inside the DPC, the bulky documents have taken on a mythical significance. They lay out a topic, the policy context, and the positions of each Cabinet secretary on it. Rice has been known to record phone calls to the Cabinet in order to double-check documents for accuracy and errors. Before signing off, she and her team will go over as many as a dozen different permutations of the products.
Rice isn’t the warmest person you’ve ever met, but she is respectful, according to a former senior administration official who worked with her.
Rice’s tenacity can show through in a variety of ways.
One is her well-known sharp tongue and predilection for swearing, which both intimidates and endears her to others.
“We’ve been in the Situation Room, the Cabinet Room, and the Situation Room again.” “She’s a someone who isn’t afraid to communicate her ideas in as forthright a way as possible,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said last year when Rice took the helm of the council. “She uses [profanity] strategically, but if it were a male saying these things, it wouldn’t be a newsworthy incident.”
Her territorialism is the other. Rice is irritated by individuals in the government who she perceives are invading her domain. She and her team have reminded others in the White House that the material must be run through DPC first. They’ve lobbed brush-back pitches about maternal mortality and voting rights at VP staff.
“‘Why is this guy suggesting policy?’ she asks. Another White House insider stated, “We are the policymakers, and that individual is already at the table.”
Rice’s coverage area has grown as time has passed. Her agency has worked on mental health issues as well as initiatives to ban menthol cigarettes, promote second-chance options for jailed persons, and eliminate racial and ethnic bias in home appraisals.
Progressives believe she has used her position to sever the DPC’s ties with the liberal intellectual community, which has 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.
Rice has made it clear to colleagues that she favours granting income-capped debt relief to the great majority of borrowers, unlike some of her colleagues who have warned against any debt relief on the grounds that it would be inflationary. She’s also been outraged by press coverage that indicates she’s violating her family’s legacy by opposing larger assistance, according to two White House officials. Lois Rice, her late mother, was a key figure in the development of the federal Pell Grant programme.
“We joke around here about how she’s the only one [internally] working for debt relief while she’s painted as being against it,” a White House official said.
Rice is a pragmatic, according to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and one of the most high-profile progressives pressing the White House to support a broad student debt cancellation plan. However, she claims that it has improved her reputation in the West Wing, despite the fact that it has irritated outside supporters and lawmakers.
“She’s expecting advocates to not only fight for their side, but also to be able to answer the tough questions that will surely arise,” Weingarten explained. “It’s quite intimidating if you’re not used to it.”
Rice has found herself at conflict with members inside the administration and the party’s left wing over immigration policy, not student loan relief.
Rice realised soon after joining the administration that many of the administration’s immigration professionals weren’t equipped to handle the crisis-level reaction required to deal with the unprecedented number of migrants arriving at the border, according to two former officials. She stated that they were indifferent to Biden’s concerns, prompting her to enlist the help of an outside adviser, Amy Pope, a former Obama administration national security official, to help coordinate the effort.
Rice reportedly clashed with officials from the Department of Health and Human Services early on. According to a former official who worked closely with Rice, she believed HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra lacked relevant experience on the issues and was unwilling to jump in there and try — and some DPC personnel perceived Becerra as concerned about his own political exposure to the border concerns. HHS has rebutted the accusations levied against Becerra, citing his extensive work on immigration matters as a member of Congress for more than two decades.
People familiar with the situation at the time said she thought Harris was avoiding taking responsibility for the border surge.
“She didn’t have a lot of patience for it,” the former official said, “and felt that [Harris] was creating distinctions that were cutting things too fine.”
The amount of unaccompanied children who might be transported into HHS facilities was also a topic of controversy. Rice pressed HHS to go above its typical capacity restrictions to get more migrant children out of the meagre border facilities at the heart of the immigration issue, due to a lack of shelters.
The administration’s decision to repeal Title 42, the Trump-era pandemic restriction aimed to slow the spread of Covid-19, has sparked a new round of controversy. Rice didn’t agree with lifting the order, according to colleagues, arguing that it would be incongruent to open the border when the government was warning Americans about the dangers of the virus and not getting vaccinated.
The emotions simmered for months until a judge ruled that the administration did not follow proper protocol in terminating the order, effectively putting a stop to the case.
The White House has attempted to downplay internal divisions. Rice provided perspective to the issue because she is “quite fresh” to immigration, according to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in an interview.
He described her as eager to get started, noting that she engaged herself in the operational issues of opening additional HHS shelters and the need to reunite migrant children with their qualified U.S. sponsors as quickly as possible.
“She simply asks questions, a lot of ‘what ifs,'” Mayorkas explained. “And, very simply, it strengthens not only policy formation but also policy execution.”
When given anonymity, another senior administration official, though, was more candid in his evaluation of Rice’s role.
“I couldn’t tell you what the White House goal is for immigration, migration, and the border,” the senior official admitted. Rice believes that deterring immigration “always comes back to punitive tactics.”
The president’s “strong affirmative immigration plan — from expanding legal migration pathways to speeding up the asylum process and offering more possibilities for temporary workers — speaks for itself,” according to a White House official. Rice has been a “big champion of all of it,” according to the official.
Rice’s best achievement to far, despite all the high-profile topics with which she’s involved, may be assisting in the drafting of the long-awaited executive order that addresses racism and police accountability.
After a stalemate in Congress over police reform, the process began. Rice was the one who wrote the “decision memo” on the subject, which was no simple task. She needed to come up with something that would appeal to law enforcement, civil rights organisations, and the relatives of victims murdered or injured by cops. It became even more convoluted once an early draught was released, making the process “10,000 times harder,” as Rice’s business partner Remus described it.
The Fraternal Order of Police’s executive director, Jim Pasco, said his organisation was “very unhappy” since the leak contradicted his group’s knowledge of what the executive orders would look like. Rice, on the other hand, called him on a Sunday and requested a resumption, promising a smaller group of negotiators and a vow that they would operate in a “cone of silence.”
“You have complete freedom to speak whatever you want. You are welcome to spit on the document. She advised him, “You can puke on the document.” Pasco responded, “If they did their jobs well, they’d both want to puke on the blasted order.”
Rice made sure her team got a photo with the president and Harris after Biden signed the order in late May. She then invited aides to a small happy hour she had prepared on the balcony of the second guy.
The staff was clamouring for another shot, this time with Rice herself.
It was a rare moment of joy in an administration that has enjoyed few in recent years. For those involved, it was also confirmation of their work and their boss’s approach at DPC: harsh, process-heavy, and driven to make even minor progress.
“I had a feeling she was a tough cookie — and a prickly one at that. “I went into it anticipating it to be a knock-down, drag-out battle,” Pasco recalled. “However, despite the fact that she was every bit as difficult a negotiator as I’d ever heard, I genuinely enjoyed the give and take with her due to her demeanour.”