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Susan Rice, leaving the administration, talks of what's possible in a divided nation

Domestic policy adviser Susan Rice speaks during a news briefing at the White House on Jan. 26, 2021. Rice is stepping down from the post.
Drew Angerer
/
Getty Images
Domestic policy adviser Susan Rice speaks during a news briefing at the White House on Jan. 26, 2021. Rice is stepping down from the post.

Susan Rice is stepping down from her post as President Biden's chief domestic policy adviser. It's the latest of her several 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 options and worse ones."

Rice tells NPR that something similar has been true about domestic issues during the first 2 1/2 years of the Biden administration: On divisive subjects, the best hope has often been to take the least bad option. Yet she didn't sound like she felt it had been her hardest job: "While there are many intractable domestic issues, I dare say there may be more internationally," she said.

Rice's staff assembled a list of accomplishments in which she played some role. The list touches much of the agenda of the administration as a whole. It's a checklist of specific policy changes that could affect many lives, though they have rarely dominated news headlines — items like "starting the process for a minimum nursing home staffing standard," expanding "postpartum Medicaid coverage in more than 30 states" and launching "the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline."

Gun control and immigration pose the toughest challenges

Some issues did dominate the headlines, and in an exit interview we discussed her thinking about two especially difficult ones: gun control and immigration.

One year ago this week, a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in a school in Uvalde, Texas. The shock was great 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 red flag laws. Biden took equally modest steps by executive order; more dramatic measures such as a renewed assault-weapons ban appear politically out of reach.

"The president has taken as much executive action as is possible, really, with the authorities that the president has," Rice argued. The rest was out of the administration's hands. "Clearly, we wanted Congress to do more," she said. Republicans have insisted that the Second Amendment to the Constitution bars most gun regulation, and they have also resisted measures seen as constitutional.

"I'm an optimist," Rice said, but argued that "Congress at the moment 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 big-city Democratic mayors from El Paso, Texas, to New York have also said their cities have too many to handle. The past two Democratic presidents — Obama and Biden — have been painted by Republicans as too welcoming to new arrivals, while they've also faced attacks from progressives who have called them too cruel.

"We are a nation of immigrants," Rice said, "yet we also are a nation of laws," needing to "enforce our laws and secure our borders, even as we at the same time enable those who need the refuge or asylum to be able to make their claims."

Early in the administration, the U.S. made a greater effort to take in unaccompanied minors who were crossing the border, uniting them with families or sponsors in the United States. It soon became apparent that some of these minors were being used as child laborers by their sponsors. Rice insisted that the administration was "very concerned" and has improved its systems for monitoring children.

What's 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 expel asylum-seekers and others. To the dismay of immigrant advocates, the administration had long resisted lifting the restriction, which was largely seen as an excuse for deportation. It has now been replaced by a mix of policies that make it easier for some people to apply for asylum legally, while also making it easier to expel others who cross the border illegally.

"We are opening up lawful pathways for people who qualify to come to the United States through programs that Republican governors and Republican attorney generals and those in Congress are trying to overturn," Rice said. At the same time, she asserted, "the number of people who have sought to cross between our ports of entry without authorization has fallen by over 75% since Title 42 was lifted."

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 option was good enough.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.