WASHINGTON — It might seem counterintuitive to put an experienced foreign policy expert in charge of infrastructure, education and health care policy, but President-elect Joe Biden is hoping that Susan Rice, his choice to lead the Domestic Policy Council, can elevate the stature of the relatively low-profile White House forum.
That was the message to Rice, who was a finalist to be Biden’s running mate, when he offered her the job in early December.
The idea is for Rice to reshape the Domestic Policy Council, or DPC, so it operates more like the more prestigious National Security Council, which she oversaw during the Obama administration, transition officials said. It’s a steep challenge given that the DPC has a far smaller staff and budget than what Rice had to work with at the National Security Council. But Biden is banking on Rice’s blunt style and her experience coordinating policy across a sprawling bureaucracy.
“If she’s not in a meeting, she will bust through the door,” a senior transition official said. “And everybody knows that, including Joe Biden.”
In an interview, Rice described the DPC as “the front line for our fight for all that matters right now.” Other than the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery, which she said are “job one for everybody,” the DPC’s top priorities will be health care, immigration and racial equality and justice.
Biden, in announcing Rice’s position, said she will work with his incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and his chair of the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, to “align domestic policy, economic policy and national security unlike ever before.”
“Susan will elevate and turbocharge a revitalized Domestic Policy Council to help us build back better on every issue across the board,” he said.
Biden got to know Rice well over the eight years of the Obama administration, when she was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser. She is often described as an exception to the Washington rules of backhanded compliments and passive aggression. She’s known for speaking with candor and preferring to confront people directly, not behind their backs.
And she drives a rigorous policymaking process, said people who’ve worked closely with her, which they predict will serve her well in the Biden administration.
“She will raise the bar in terms of both process and substance,” said Valerie Jarrett, a former senior White House adviser who worked with Rice during the Obama administration. “She will lead by example and up the effort of the Cabinet and her team to meet the challenges we face.”
Rice hasn’t yet connected with her counterpart in the Trump White House, a transition official said. The Biden team has prioritized coordinating with parts of the government that will retain career officials, such as the National Security Council, not completely bringing in a new team, as with the DPC.
Rice’s appointment also underscores the differences between this transition and past ones. For instance, Melody Barnes, who was head of the DPC during President Barack Obama’s first term, met with Bush administration officials at the DPC in December 2008 to discuss how they’d structured their domestic policymaking process.
While Rice’s focus on domestic policy might seem foreign, she said issues close to home have been an integral part of her life since she was growing up in Washington, D.C.
She spent her career in public service focused on foreign policy — first as assistant secretary of state for Africa affairs during the Clinton administration, then as Obama’s ambassador to the U.N. and, in his second term, as national security adviser.
But as a child, she was a student of domestic policy. Her father was a governor of the Federal Reserve, and her mother helped craft the Pell Grant program to help students pay for college. Economic mobility and racial justice, she said, “are issues I was raised on.”
When she was offered two different positions in the Clinton administration in 1993 — one focused on the economy and the other on national security — Rice opted for foreign policy, thinking it would be easier to pivot from that to domestic issues than vice versa.
“She’s worked on education, poverty, a pandemic, economic security issues — she’s done it with a global lens,” Barnes said. “All of that is transferrable to the work that she’ll be doing. It may not repeat, but it rhymes. So there’s a connection there.”
Rice kept a low profile as national security adviser, a job she stepped into in 2013 after she took herself out of contention for secretary of state because of the bruising controversy — and multiple investigations by congressional Republicans — over the Obama administration’s handling of the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
And since she left the White House in January 2017, she has been increasingly outspoken about issues close to home. She published a deeply personal book, “Tough Love.” She’s been vocal about domestic policy issues, including writing about Congress’ failure to pass police reforms and calling for revamping the economic and education systems.
“She found her voice coming out of the White House,” where “she was more behind the scenes than I think she would be inclined to be,” the senior transition official said.
Rice has also been a scathing critic of President Donald Trump. Last year, she even called Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — one of the Republicans who relentlessly criticized her over the Benghazi investigations and then her handling of the handing over national security matters during the transition for the incoming Trump administration — “a piece of s—” during a podcast. “I said it, damn it, finally,” Rice said.
Rice said that as head of the Domestic Policy Council, which was founded in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan, she will be able to work seamlessly with former colleagues Deese and Sullivan.
“This is not going to be a team of people playing territorial war with each other,” Rice said. “We’re going to be firing on all cylinders.”
She will also be part of the coronavirus task force. And she plans to hold principals committee meetings about domestic policy, as the National Security Council does for foreign policy, attended by Cabinet secretaries and other officials across the government. Her efforts will be focused on helping Biden carry out a legislative agenda and craft executive orders. Many executive orders initially will focus on undoing policies Trump adopted.
“You’ve seen over the last four years how influential the domestic policy adviser can be,” Jarrett said.