The former governor of Rhode Island, and a Rhodes scholar, Raimondo is a technocratic moderate in a moment when her party’s loudest voices are woke, populist and a step or two to her left. That makes her role as Biden’s self-described “sympathetic ear” to the business community all the more refreshing and essential.
“The president’s view, which is strongly my view, is you can have policies that are good for business and good for workers,” Raimondo said in an interview this week. “It doesn’t always have to be either/or.”
Raimondo led negotiations to unwind President Donald Trump’s disastrous trade war with the Europeans, secured $65 billion for broadband Internet in the bipartisan infrastructure bill and has responsibility for rebuilding the country’s capacity to produce semiconductors.
By cutting a deal with the European Union in October to scale back steel and aluminum tariffs, Raimondo spared several U.S. industries from stiff retaliatory tariffs. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D), for instance, gave Raimondo a shout-out last week during his State of the State speech for helping bourbon distilleries. The secretary said it’s a priority to resolve trade disputes with allies so the administration can focus on more effectively countering adversaries such as China.
Raimondo’s father lost his job of 28 years when Bulova closed its Rhode Island factory and moved production to China in 1983. She wears one of the company’s watches as a tribute to him and a reminder of the human costs of outsourcing.
Nonetheless, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) delayed Raimondo’s nomination last year on the grounds she wouldn’t be aggressive enough about using the so-called entity list, which allows our government to block companies from selling products and technology to certain foreign firms. But the secretary notes that she has added dozens of companies to the list.
Raimondo explained that it’s impossible to decouple the United States’ economy from China’s and that the two countries are intertwined in ways that are beneficial for America. She argues that it’s smarter to coordinate with allies to protect critical technologies than to close our markets. “What good is it if we deny China certain products but China buys them from Europe or Japan or Korea? It denies our companies the revenue, and China gets the products anyway,” she said. “What’s often ‘tougher’ is a more thoughtful, nuanced, devil-in-the-details approach.”
In a mahogany-walled conference room at Commerce headquarters, Raimondo rapped her knuckles on the table to emphasize these points. She argued that export controls are important but ultimately defensive in nature. Just as important, the secretary explained, is investing in offensive capabilities to out-compete the regime, such as semiconductor manufacturing, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. “China's going to do what China is going to do,” Raimondo said. “We can only slow them down so much.”
She complained that the press describes the Build Back Better bill as “social spending.” She instead made the case that the bill, which stalled in the Senate, is really “the only shot we’ve got of getting millions of women back to work” who have left the labor market. The former venture capitalist said she presses CEOs every day to recognize that they have obligations not just to shareholders but also employees. She tried to make a business case for them to support more paid leave, prekindergarten, job retraining and home care. “Marginal tax rates and corporate tax rates that are through the roof, that’s not good. But our president doesn’t support that,” Raimondo said. “It’s also not true that government can solve all problems. What you need are policies that enable workers to work.”
Raimondo gets less attention than populists on Capitol Hill and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, but she is confident that the infrastructure bill, which finally passed in November, will allow for universal broadband by 2030. If that happens, this will be Biden’s Hoover Dam — a vast public works project that brought water and power to the southwestern United States nearly 90 years ago. She worked with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to balance Republican concerns about price controls with Democratic desires to make the Internet affordable. “We didn’t want to overregulate, but we also weren’t just going to give all the money to the Internet service providers and hope for the best,” said Raimondo.
That balanced approach defined Raimondo’s tenure in Rhode Island. She rolled back regulations and cut taxes, but she also raised the minimum wage and made community colleges tuition-free. She clashed with public employee unions to make the state’s pension fund solvent, but she also helped home-care workers get the right to collective bargaining. As the mother of two teenagers, Raimondo demanded schools reopen for in-person learning early in the pandemic when almost no other Democratic leader would do so, even though it meant a fight with the Providence teachers union.
Biden’s team vetted Raimondo for vice president, and she wowed during interviews with the search committee, but Biden tapped California Sen. Kamala D. Harris in the end. At only 50 years old, it’s easy to see Raimondo on a path to something bigger someday.