When White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre faced questions recently about calls for an administration office to tackle gun violence, she had an answer: Susan Rice is in charge.
Rice, she said, is already leading a 12-person team from her perch atop the Domestic Policy Council to execute a government-wide effort to reduce gun violence that also brings in mental health and workforce development.
“There’s no one who is better at bringing stakeholders to the table to drive progress,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.
The announcement served as a reminder that Rice is at the center of major and contentious policy debates and decisions on everything from gun violence to immigration to criminal justice reform to student loan debt forgiveness to the stymied talks around President Biden’s signature domestic legislative effort.
“I’d say that the Domestic Policy Council has the broadest and also the most diffuse agenda,” said Bill Galston, chair of the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program and a former domestic policy aide to then-President Bill Clinton.
But Rice is leading on these issues quietly. While she has headlined a handful of roundtables from the White House on issues including racial equity and eviction prevention, she has appeared at only one press briefing to field reporter questions — six days after Biden took office — and rarely does media interviews.
Brian Deese, chair of the National Economic Council, has attended eight briefings. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, has participated in 11, not counting informal gaggles aboard Air Force One.
“She has kept herself outside of the limelight,” Galston said. “Keeping your head down and doing your job is a pretty good formula, and I think it’s the formula she’s been following.”
The position of domestic policy adviser is decidedly lower-profile than others in presidential administrations. It’s a change for Rice, who cut her teeth in foreign policy and served as ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser under then-President Obama.
Still, some believe that the administration should be putting Rice out there more, even if it’s not part of the traditional job description.
“I expected her to be a little more public facing if I’m being honest,” said one Democratic strategist. “She’s such a powerful force. She could have been Vice President or Secretary of State and I don’t think they’re utilizing her in a way that creates maximum impact for the administration.”
“Some might say that’s not her role but why shouldn’t it be?” the strategist added.
A White House official countered on Monday that Rice speaks publicly with various groups every few days, adding that she is focused on the work itself, and when an opportunity arises for her to explain that work to the American public, she takes it.
“She’s done a fair amount of public engagement, it’s just not necessarily always through the press channel,” the official said.
Behind the scenes, though, Rice has wielded her power.
She was intimately involved in the crafting of the long-awaited executive order on policing that Biden signed on the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder last month.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, recalled receiving a call from Rice on a Sunday night while he was watching a football game not long after a leaked draft version of the order irked police groups.
Rice, Pasco said in an interview, told him the administration wanted to do a “reset.”
“She and [White House counsel] Dana Remus were right in the middle of things from there on out along with other senior staff,” he said.
The White House worked with law enforcement groups to negotiate aspects of the final order so that ultimately it would be acceptable to police organizations as well as civil rights groups.
“She’s a tough negotiator,” Pasco said of Rice, who noted she was up front about where the administration’s “red lines” were. “That said, she was a fair negotiator.”
Rice has also been at the center of contentious debates over immigration policy amid a surge of migrants at the southern border.
Rice and Biden chief of staff Ron Klain worried last summer that lifting Title 42 would encourage more migrants to flow to the southern border, The New York Times reported in April.
She was also reportedly among a group of officials who blocked a plan to give COVID-19 vaccines to migrants out of concern it would encourage more border crossings.
“They didn’t want to create a new crisis on their hands,” said one Democrat close to the White House. “I think that was what she and other White House officials were trying to stress.”
Last year, Rice was a regular fixture on Capitol Hill as Biden’s team tried, and failed, to get senators to agree on a compromise version of his Build Back Better bill that could pass the upper chamber with only Democratic votes.
“She carries a certain clout and gravitas and that’s not lost on folks who sit at the table with her,” said one Biden ally. “She’s a brilliant, hardworking and thoughtful person period. She’s someone you walk away from saying ‘Damn, she’s smart.”
The White House official noted that Rice put her own mark on the domestic policy office by tapping four deputies to head four pillars — rather than the traditional organization of one director, one deputy and experts underneath — so that the administration could push forward on all of its focus areas at once.
“That speaks to her desire to ensure that we can continue to put points on the board or the president, despite what might be going on at any given moment,” the official said.
Rice is among a cadre of Obama-era officials who joined Biden’s administration early on. She, Klain, deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed and other officials are said to brief Biden in the Oval Office several times a week.
She was initially rumored to be a candidate for secretary of State, but Biden ultimately chose longtime adviser Antony Blinken for the role amid Democratic concerns that Rice would lack the votes to be confirmed in the Senate.
Rice has long been a popular target for criticism among Republicans due to her involvement in the response to the 2012 Benghazi attack.
During that response, Rice appeared on a round of Sunday shows and said the attack on the consulate in Libya was the result of a protest that turned violent instead of a planned terrorist attack. The administration later announced it was a terrorist attack.
Benghazi became a leading talking point against then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama and Rice for years. Many Democrats say it was one of the reasons she was passed over for the vice presidential nomination.
“The White House says ‘no one better’ than Susan Rice to lead their gun control messaging,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who headed a House panel investigating the Benghazi attack almost a decade ago, tweeted in late May. “The architect of the Benghazi cover-up? I can’t think of anyone worse.”
But gun control advocates have been happy with Rice’s work, though some have advocated for a devoted office to focus on the issue more than the Domestic Policy Council can muster given its competing priorities.
Under Rice’s leadership, the council “is certainly more engaged on gun safety than it was under the Obama administration,” said Peter Ambler, executive director at the gun control advocacy group Giffords. “I think Rice has advanced the ball on some important initiatives like expanding the administration’s focus on violence intervention strategies and funding.”
The White House official said that Rice’s office has taken a broad approach to addressing gun violence by connecting it to other policy areas, such as mental health and health care.
“We view it as a comparative advantage to have our gun policy agenda connected to so many of our other critical policy agendas, so we’re not looking at it narrowly,” the official said.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers who said she has met with Rice over Zoom on issues such as student debt and civics education, described her as someone who “looks around corners” and really engages people from the outside as the administration weighs policy decisions.
“Before you have a meeting with Susan Rice you, have to do your homework. Because she’s going to ask you – even if you do your homework – a question that you don’t know the answer to,” Weingarten said.