WASHINGTON – President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. named two senior White House officials in Obama key jobs Thursday. He hired Susan Rice, a former national security adviser, to lead his home affairs council and appointed President Barack Obama’s chief staff member, Denis McDonough, as secretary for veterans affairs.
Both decisions came as a surprise, particularly the decision to place a lifelong national security expert like Ms. Rice in a high-level domestic political job. At the same time, they reflect Mr. Biden’s desire to populate the upper levels of his in-depth administration with people he knows well and with whom he has worked closely in the past.
Ms. Rice’s appointment also helps Mr. Biden fulfill his commitment to diversity by installing a black woman in a post in the White House who has great influence over a wide range of federal policies, from education to health care to racial justice .
Like Ms. Rice, Mr. McDonough, who, if confirmed, will take over the Department of Veterans Affairs, a politically important agency long known for malfunctions and scandals, has a national security background. He served as a foreign policy advisor on Capitol Hill and then as deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama before becoming his chief of staff.
During the Obama administration, both Mr. McDonough and Ms. Rice spent countless hours with Mr. Biden, then Vice President, in the Oval Office and the Situation Room. Those familiar with their selection said the president-elect saw them both as tenacious managers with a deep understanding of federal bureaucracy.
Ms. Rice’s friendship with Mr. Biden sparked speculation that he would choose her as his runner-up mate, but he chose California Senator Kamala Harris instead.
Though Mr McDonough’s selection was unexpected, former colleagues said he took a keen interest in military families during the Obama administration, as well as the notorious backlog in the sprawling department that administers health care and other benefits for veterans. He also traveled regularly to combat zones and often visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with wounded soldiers. Mr. McDonough’s wife, Kari, is the co-founder and president of an organization that helps veterans reintegrate into their communities.
“If you know Denis McDonough, the idea is that the V.A. would literally be the man’s dream position in government, “said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor to Obama’s White House. “He is so animated by veterans problems that he is animated by nothing else, including national security issues.”
Mr. Rhodes recalled many instances where he “rounded a curve in the west wing at 9:00 pm. on a Tuesday and the guy was giving a tour to 10 wounded warriors. “
McDonough, 51, would only be the second head of the veterans affairs department since he ousted the veterans administration for not serving in the military in 1989. The other was President Trump’s first secretary, David Shulkin, who was unanimously approved by the Senate.
The appointment of Ms. Rice, 56, was an even bigger surprise. Many longtime domestic political experts from the Democratic Party complained privately on Thursday that Mr Biden had passed over candidates with direct experience in issues such as education and the economy.
A Stanford graduate and a Rhodes Fellow, Ms. Rice joined President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff in 1993 and became Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. She returned to the government under Obama, first as his ambassador to the United Nations and then as national security advisor, a role she held for four years.
After Ms. Rice left the administration with the election of Mr. Trump, she became a writer for the New York Times for three years. Her last column for The Times was published on December 1st.
She was twice a finalist for Secretary of State, first under Obama and more recently when Mr Biden was assembling his national security team. But it was passed over twice, in part because of concerns over a potentially bloody affirmation battle.
Republicans turned against Ms. Rice over comments she made shortly after the attack on a US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, in order to downplay terrorism as a motive. In an election year, they turned the attack into a major political issue, highlighting her and Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State. Ms. Rice’s allies said she was the victim of smearings and discrimination, noting that congressional investigations found no wrongdoing on her part.
Ms. Rice’s new position does not require Senate approval. In a statement announcing her appointment, Mr Biden’s transition team said she “knows the government inside out and will realize the president-elect’s vision of a newly empowered domestic policy council and advance efforts to better rebuild” .
The Council for Domestic Policy, founded in 1993, co-ordinates – similar to its counterpart on national security, which Ms. Rice has administered – the domestic political decision-making in the entire federal government, with the exception of the numerous economic questions which are monitored by the National Economic Council.
The transition of the president
Mr Rhodes said Ms. Rice worked extensively as a national security advisor during the Obama administration on issues that spanned both home and abroad, including a flood of migrant families on the South American border and an Ebola outbreak in Africa. “The national security and domestic lines are blurred,” he said, especially since the emergence of the coronavirus, which is sure to be one of their top priorities.
Melody Barnes, who headed Mr Obama’s domestic affairs council, said Ms. Rice had the necessary bureaucratic know-how to run the body effectively and noted that she was backed by an impressive staff of experts.
“She’s an intellectual powerhouse,” said Ms. Barnes. “She has extensive government experience and knows how to manage a process and work with departments and agencies, which is an integral part of the director’s job.”
Ms. Rice comes from a family of domestic affairs enthusiasts. Her mother, Lois Rice, was an education policy expert often referred to as the “mother of the Pell Scholarship” for playing an important role in lobbying for the 1965 Federal College grant.
Ms. Rice is a pioneering black woman in government and she also has a major issue with racial justice. Ms. Barnes noted that the Home Affairs Council would play a central role in Mr Biden’s efforts to promote racial justice.
A home affairs mission could also help position Ms. Rice for future office. She recently considered running for the Senate in Maine, a state where she has family roots, and was a finalist to become Mr. Biden’s vice president.
Like Ms. Rice, Mr. McDonough, a graduate of St. Johns University in Minnesota and the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, is known to be a demanding, persistent manager who is impatient and confused. If this is confirmed, he will oversee a department whose enormous size is only achieved by its seemingly unsolvable problems.
It is the second largest division of the government, with around 375,000 employees and a budget of more than $ 200 billion, that funds a troubled health system that has been under enormous strain after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Biden’s hope is that Mr. McDonough can use the management acumen he developed as chief of staff to make the troubled department more efficient and effective.
During the Obama administration, officials at a Phoenix medical center were found to have tampered with long waiting time data for veterans that may have resulted in patient deaths. This resulted in the departure of Eric Shinseki, then secretary, and Mr. McDonough helped pastoral legislation allow veterans access to care outside of the department’s system.
Mr Rhodes said Mr McDonough was “obsessed” with cruelly long waits for health care and made it a top priority while serving as chief of staff.
Mr Trump put the troubled department at the center of his own political agenda, pushing for veterans’ access to private care to be expanded. Its youngest secretary, Robert L. Wilkie, eschewed traditional veterans’ organizations and many lawmakers in favor of conservative groups advocating private care, particularly Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group with ties to the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
The department became deeply politicized and faced additional problems caused by an expensive electronic health record system, the introduction of its expanded community care program, and a report from the Inspector General that extreme Mr. Wilkie’s treatment of a reported sexual assault in a departmental hospital was critical.
In a statement, Will Fischer, a senior advisor to the liberal veterans group VoteVets, admitted that few saw Mr McDonough’s pick coming. “Some may say this election is unexpected and out of left field,” he said, but called the election “a grand slam”.
“What about the V.A. Above all, there is a need for an experienced manager with a deep knowledge of how the agency works, how it interacts with other agencies and how the agency can be rebuilt quickly, even better, ”he said.
Mr. Biden plans to introduce Mr. McDonough and Ms. Rice at a public event in Wilmington, Delaware on Friday afternoon.
Michael D. Shear, Jennifer Steinhauer and Jim Tankersley Contribution to reporting.