The departure of Susan Rice from the Biden White House and news of her likely replacement—senior adviser and staff secretary Neera Tanden—may have triggered a flash of campaign-themed PTSD for left-aligned veterans of the past two Democratic primary cycles. Rice has captained the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, coordinating reform agendas in a host of arenas, from immigration to LBGTQ+ rights; prior to that, she had served as UN ambassador and national security adviser in the Obama administration. Tanden had long helmed the Center for American Progress—the think tank that eagerly advances the agendas of Democratic White Houses in power, and served as a prime recruitment arm for the incoming Obama and Biden administrations. But she was best known for her extramural baiting and trolling of Bernie Sanders supporters on social media—a colorful digital paper trail that upended her nomination to serve as Biden’s director of the Office of Management and Budget back in 2021.
On paper, the move might just seem like another personnel shift signaling a change in emphasis as Biden prepared to announce his pending reelection campaign—not unlike the decision to tap former Covid czar Jeff Zients to succeed Ron Klain as chief of staff at the start of the year. But both Rice and Tanden have high-wattage profiles in the world of ideological policy debate. They are both Type-A D.C. insiders schooled in policy as the conduct of politics by other means—and both have been keen to set and execute agendas that will advance their political ambitions and finely honed sense of consensus-driven realpolitik.
It speaks volumes about Rice’s legacy in the Biden administration that observers tracking the shifting currents of policy debate in Biden’s orbit see Tanden as a distinct upgrade. That’s in large part because Rice had no real grounding in domestic policy-making, having come up as a national security and foreign policy specialist; it’s hard to see how she made it onto the Biden administration’s short list for the gig for anything other than political reasons. “The Domestic Policy Council is traditionally a position that maintains open lines of communication with, and mollifies, constituencies within the Democratic Party coalition,” says Jeff Hauser, head of the Revolving Door Project, an executive watchdog group. ”Rice was extremely ill-suited to the job. There are basically two theories about why she wanted it. First, her potential political and electoral ambitions in D.C. She felt a need to add a domestic set of connections and CV points to succeed, and to potentially run for the Senate in the event of D.C. statehood. Second, she might have seen herself as a potential successor to Klain, which obviously didn’t happen.”
In all likelihood, Rice’s continued mishandling of immigration reform was the proximate cause of her departure. The New York Times recently reported that as she met with critics of hard-line border policies and discussed the plight of unaccompanied minors seeking entry into the United States, she scribbled a note suggesting that such entrants into the country were only getting what they deserved when they were detained and deported. “She comes from this national security background, and it really shows,” says Thomas Kennedy, spokesperson for the Florida Immigration Coalition. “This is the lens that immigration policy has been oriented toward during the last 20 years, going back to the founding of the Department of Homeland Security, and that’s the lens that she uses to approach the issue. For us in the immigration space, a lot of people will tell you, both on and off the record, that she was a difficult person to work with and put a lot of obstacles before us.”
That’s putting it mildly. As Daniel Boguslaw reported in The American Prospect, Rice adopted a consistently punitive approach to immigration policy, blocking an initiative to give immigrants Covid vaccines at the border and maintaining Trump-era levels of deportation. “After learning that expulsion flights of migrants were not always full,” Boguslaw wrote, “Rice developed a daily fixation with ensuring full capacity on all flights operating under Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers.” Rice was also reportedly a nightmare boss, creating what one of Boguslaw’s sources called “an abusive and dehumanizing environment” on the job, and stoking bitter rivalries with other White House insiders. When Biden expressed displeasure in a meeting over the border policies of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra—himself a child of immigrants—Rice scribbled another ill-considered note to a colleague reading, “Don’t help him.”
Tanden, for all her rhetorical brawling online, promises to bring a measure of stability and circumspection to the domestic policy agenda—and the issue of immigration in particular. Indeed, Hauser suggests that Tanden, unlike Rice, is likely to have been chastened by past policy imbroglios. “I think Tanden having been attacked for immigration reform during previous pushes isn’t a bad sign,” he says. “It means she’s more used to taking meetings for immigrant advocates and caring what those advocates say. That doesn’t mean I think she’ll be a steadfast progressive who’ll fight for progressive policy gains and goals. But toward the end of getting groups of reformers in the room, it’s a real advantage. You’re going to be judged on your success in this job by how happy those groups are with you.”
Perhaps, but it’s also possible that Tanden’s appointment—like Zients’s—is a symbolic rebuke to reform-minded constituencies, particularly as Biden prepares to announce his reelection bid and to position himself as a more palatable candidate for security-minded centrist voters than Trump is. If so, that would mark a serious strategic miscalculation. “Turning right on the issue would be misguided,” Kennedy argues. “This administration had the best midterm since 1962, and they largely did it by conducting a full assault on the right. We did a study…and in every state they tried to gin up this anti-immigrant sentiment on the right during the midterms—Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, even a border state like Arizona—it fell flat. The only place it didn’t was Florida. The Biden administration should lean into this post-FDR, New Deal Democrat [messaging], and not a vocal anti-immigrant line. Most Americans want a commonsense approach to immigration; they don’t have a bone-deep hatred of immigrants, and they’re tired of the mean rhetoric.”
Tanden’s past online flame wars may not be as consequential for the Domestic Policy Council as they would have been at the Office of Management and Budget, given that the office’s policy portfolio has to be aligned with more populist messaging in liberal politics. “Your goal is to have someone who has good enough relations that they get some space on these things if and when they sell out—if they have more of a mobilization theory that shows we need young voters to turn out, or immigrant communities to turn out,” Hauser notes. “There are a lot of gradations in Hispanic communities. There are differential enthusiasms depending on generations and other things. It’s a complicated vote. So you need a mobilization strategy that could be told about people closer to vulnerable communities, immigrant communities.”
Tanden is herself the daughter of South Asian immigrants, and so might be able to work more clearly in alignment with such a strategy than Rice would have been. Even so, however, Hauser cautions that Tanden’s portfolio just won’t loom that large in the upcoming reelection fight: “The fact that Tanden cares about how people perceive her gives progressives some leverage, but Tanden should not be the focus.” The most influential figures in the push for a new Biden term are Chief of Staff Zients, longtime Biden pollster and adviser Mike Donilon, and strategist Anita Dunn, Hauser says. “There’s going to be a push and pull within the reelection camp about how much to drive youth turnout, Black turnout, progressive turnout versus how much the Republicans will incite negative intensity. There’s not a super-obvious answer to that question, but if you’re speaking nonideologically, that’s the math of this. And it would be better for us as progressives if we convince them they need to do good stuff to get those constituencies engaged rather than relying on the other side to produce a negative response.”
From his vantage in the advocacy world, Kennedy says he’s cautiously optimistic about Tanden’s role in this central struggle. “Obviously, she’s had a lot of controversy and is a contentious figure,” he says. “But I will honestly say that she’s committed to fighting Republicans—in that regard, at least we’ll have a fighter in here. We won’t see eye to eye on all policy, but she has a lot of posting energy.”