WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden will make Susan Rice his top domestic policy adviser, giving her broad sway over his approach to immigration, health care and racial inequality and elevating the prominence of the position in the West Wing.
The selection to head the Domestic Policy Council is a surprising shift for Rice, a longtime Democratic foreign policy expert who served as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser and U.N. ambassador. She worked closely with then-Vice President Biden in those roles and was on his short list to become his running mate during the 2020 campaign. Rice owns a home in Lincolnville and her mother was a Portland native.
Biden is also nominating Denis McDonough, who was Obama’s White House chief of staff, as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a sprawling agency that has presented organizational challenges for both parties over the years. But he never served in the armed forces, a fact noted by a leading veterans organization.
In selecting Rice and McDonough, Biden is continuing to stockpile his administration with prominent members of the Obama administration. He will make the formal announcements Friday, along with his nominations of Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Katherine Tai as U.S. trade representative and Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary. Vilsack filled that same role during Obama’s two terms.
In choosing Rice to oversee the White House council, advisers said Biden is signaling the importance of domestic policy in his early agenda. Though the council was created with the intention of being on par with the White House National Security Council, it traditionally has had a lower public profile, including for its directors. Rice is expected to be a force inside and outside the White House. Her appointment creates a new power center in the West Wing.
She’s expected to play an active role in the Biden administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Health care, immigration and tackling racial inequality are also expected to be among the top issues for the domestic policy shop next year.
Since California Sen. Kamala Harris became Biden’s running mate, Rice has been discussing other roles with the Biden team and was initially seen as a contender for secretary of state. She played in Maine politics in 2018 when she briefly considered a run against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who defeated former House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, to win a fifth term in November, despite never having lived in the state full-time.
But as a longtime target of Republicans, Rice’s prospects for a Cabinet position faded after the election, given the close makeup of the Senate. A pair of runoffs in Georgia next month will determine which party has control, but either configuration will be exceedingly close. Rice’s role overseeing the council does not require Senate confirmation.
Although Biden has insisted his administration will not simply be a retread of Obama’s presidency, he is bringing back numerous familiar faces. His team has defended the moves as a nod toward experience and the need to hit the ground running in tackling the pressing issues facing the nation across multiple fronts.
McDonough, the VA nominee, was chief of staff throughout Obama’s second term. McDonough was previously Obama’s deputy national security adviser, including during the Navy SEAL raid in 2011 that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and was a longtime congressional staffer.
“We are surprised by this pick. No way to deny that,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS, or American Veterans. “We were expecting a veteran, maybe a post-9/11 veteran. Maybe a woman veteran. Or maybe a veteran who knows the VA exceptionally well. We are looking forward to hearing from President-Elect Biden on his thinking behind this nomination.”
Correction: Susan Rice owns a home in Lincolnville. An earlier version of this article named the wrong town.
This story was written by Julie Pace and Zeke Miller. Bangor Daily News writer Michael Shepherd and Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report.