Susan Rice reflects on what’s possible in a divided nation : NPR
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Susan Rice is stepping down from her post as President Biden’s chief domestic policy adviser. It is her last turns in government.
During the Obama administration, Rice held high-profile foreign policy positions, including national security adviser. In a memoir, she wrote about President Barack Obama’s choice not to bomb Syria in 2013: “There were only bad choices and worse.”
Rice tells NPR that something similar was true on domestic issues during the first 2 1/2 years of the Biden administration: On divisive topics, the best hope was often to make the least bad choice. However she did not pretend that she felt it was her hardest work: “While there are many domestic issues that cannot be dealt with, I dare say there may be more internationally,” she said.
Rice’s staff compiled a list of accomplishments in which she played a role. The list touches on much of the administration’s agenda as a whole. It’s a checklist of specific policy changes that could affect many lives, though they’ve rarely dominated headlines — items like “begin the process for a minimum nursing home staffing standard,” expand “Medicaid coverage after birth in more than 30 states” and launch ” the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.”
Gun control and immigration pose the toughest challenges
Some issues dominated the news, and in an exit interview we discussed her thinking on two especially difficult ones: gun control and immigration.
A year ago this week, a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Texas. The shock was big enough that Congress passed the first bipartisan gun legislation in decades – but it was extremely modest, including measures such as offering incentives to states to enact flag laws. -red. Biden took equally modest steps by executive order; more dramatic measures such as a renewed ban on assault weapons seem politically out of reach.
“The president has taken as much executive action as possible, really, with the authorities that the president has,” Rice asserted. The rest was out of the hands of the administration. “Obviously, we wanted Congress to do more,” she said. Republicans have insisted that the Second Amendment to the Constitution prohibits most gun regulation, and have also resisted measures deemed unconstitutional.
“I’m optimistic,” Rice said, but argued that “Congress right now is not adequately reflecting the will of the people.”
Federal immigration policy is, if anything, more divisive, and the division cuts across party lines. The right-wing media ecosystem plays up the dangers of migrants and asylum seekers, but Democratic mayors of major cities from El Paso, Texas, to New York have also said their cities have too much to handle. The last two Democratic presidents — Obama and Biden — have been painted by Republicans as being too welcoming to new arrivals, while they have too they faced attacks from progressives who called them too cruel.
“We are a nation of immigrants,” Rice said, “but we are also a nation of laws,” which requires us to “enforce our laws and secure our borders, even while at the same time allowing those who need the -shelter or asylum so that they can make their requests.”
Early in the administration, the United States made a greater effort to welcome unaccompanied minors who were crossing the border, and connect them with families or sponsors in the United States. It soon became apparent that some of these minors were being used as child labor by their sponsors. Rice insisted that the administration was “very concerned” and had improved its systems for monitoring children.
What is left after Title 42
This month, the administration finally faced the expiration of Title 42, the pandemic-era legal authority first used by the Trump administration to make it easier to deport asylum seekers and others. To the dismay of immigrant advocates, the administration had long resisted lifting the restriction, which was largely seen as a pretext for deportation. It has now been replaced by a mix of policies that make it easier some people to apply for asylum legally, while making it easier to expel others who cross the border illegally.
“We’re opening up legal pathways for people who qualify to come to the United States through programs that Republican governors and Republican attorneys general and those in Congress are trying to dismantle,” Rice said. At the same time, she claimed, “the number of people attempting to cross between our ports of entry without authorization has decreased by more than 75% since Title 42 was repealed.”
Rice acknowledged that this apparent success may not last. But it counts among the instances during her contentious tenure in which, she suggests, the least bad choice was good enough.