WASHINGTON – Bruce Reed is no stranger to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The veteran Democratic operative and Coeur d’Alene native served in senior roles under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but he’s returning to the White House with what may be his tallest order yet: helping President-elect Joe Biden enact an ambitious slate of reforms amid deep political division.
The incoming president announced Dec. 22 that Reed would join his administration as deputy chief of staff, a role that will make him a key shepherd of the White House policy agenda. Reed, a longtime Biden confidant who served as the then-vice president’s chief of staff from 2011 -13, told The Spokesman-Review his upbringing informed his approach to politics.
“North Idaho is the best possible place to grow up,” Reed said, “and Idaho is the greatest political education anybody could ever ask for. … What was so great about it was that I had to learn how to make the case for what I believed in, and couldn’t just assume that everyone agreed with me, and that’s been an invaluable lesson.
“The people I grew up with and around were Republicans, Libertarians, some Democrats, and so I don’t see the other party as the enemy. We just disagree on a lot, and if you share some of the same ideals and interests and are willing to talk to one another, you can sometimes find a way to get stuff done.”
That ability to work across the aisle endeared Reed to Biden in 1994, when he helped the then-senator from Delaware craft a landmark criminal justice bill that critics have since blamed for contributing to an era of mass incarceration.
In 2010, as the Obama administration grappled with the economic fallout of the global financial crisis, Reed led a bipartisan commission that recommended spending cuts and tax hikes to reduce the federal deficit.
That pragmatism has made Reed a target of some on the Democratic Party’s progressive flank. But by tapping his longtime adviser for the senior White House role, Biden is betting the Idahoan’s political savvy will help advance his policy agenda in what is likely to be a divided Congress.
If Republicans win at least one of two Senate seats up for grabs in next week’s special election in Georgia, the GOP will retain its majority in the upper chamber. Even if Democrats pull off a double upset in the Peach State and take control of the Senate, the fate of key legislation is likely to lie with a handful of moderate senators.
Reed is the son of former Idaho state Sen. Mary Lou Reed and the late environmental lawyer Scott Reed, pioneering environmentalists who co-founded the Kootenai Environmental Alliance in 1972 and Idaho Conservation League in 1973.
After graduating from Coeur d’Alene High School, he studied at Princeton University and as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.
Returning from the U.K., Reed became a key player in the centrist New Democrat movement. He wrote speeches for then-Sen. Al Gore before joining the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign and eventually the White House, where he was the top domestic policy adviser.
Mary Lou Reed, a keen political observer who represented her North Idaho district from 1984 to 1996, called herself “a proud mother” upon learning of Biden’s pick.
“He has such respect and affection for the president-elect,” she said. “I think that it is great that the transition team is putting together, as quickly as possible, a team that will be ready to go. Bruce, because of his history with the president-elect, should be helpful. And it’s nice to have an Idaho boy in the White House.”
Despite his Ivy League education and lifetime in politics, she said, Reed hasn’t forgotten where he comes from.
“Bruce got a good, early start in campaigning. He didn’t go door to door until age 6, maybe 7,” she laughed. “He’s had a very fortunate education and a lot of experience, but he does take Idaho with him, the Idaho independent thinking.”
Larry LaRocco, a Democrat who represented North Idaho in Congress from 1991 to 1995, said Reed’s appointment suggests Biden wants to surround himself with people he knows and trusts to help find common ground, something he learned working on Idaho campaigns, including LaRocco’s.
“I think he realized that people operate in the middle,” LaRocco said. “What he saw (in Idaho) was that there was a great swath of people in the middle who … weren’t committed ideologically but were just committed to good American beliefs and common sense and fact-based arguments.”
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have promised to “restore the soul of the nation” after years of growing division along political lines, and LaRocco said Reed’s background could make him an important part of that effort.
“We’ve elected a president who is going to try and … bring people together,” LaRocco said. “It’s a tall task, because 74 million people voted for Trump, but on the other hand I think there’s a real opportunity. We know there’s a real rural-urban split, and people like Bruce who understand where they came from might be key figures within the administration to reach out to that sector of the population.”
Dan English, a Democratic member of the Coeur d’Alene city council, said he feels “a sense of pride whenever a hometown boy or girl makes it into the big time.”
“There is no bigger place, at least in the political world, than serving a president in the White House,” English said.
“In Bruce’s case, he is already no stranger to the White House. I’m confident his skills will continue to be put to good use in the new administration. Besides growing up in such a storied political family of advocates, I think his ability to work with folks of all parties will serve him well and contribute to much-needed national healing that we are all looking forward to.”
Reed, 60, joked he is “way too old for this” but said he is excited to return to the White House .
“Most Americans, and certainly most Idahoans, don’t wake up every morning thinking about what Washington is doing,” Reed said. “My wife and I are both from Coeur d’Alene and we’ve foolishly spent 35 years here in D.C., which thinks it’s the center of the universe, but we’re lucky enough to realize that the real world is elsewhere.”
For her part, Mary Lou Reed said she had no advice for her son as he begins serving his third president, just a simple question.
“My question was, ‘Are you happy?’” she said. “And his answer was ‘Yes.’”
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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