The Biden administration managed to rack up a long list of major legislative wins in its first two years despite facing one of the most closely-divided Congresses in history.
From bipartisan action on infrastructure, gun safety and same-sex marriage to party-line bills tackling climate change and expanding health care coverage, it’s a record President Joe Biden and Democrats on the ballot were all eager to tout on the campaign trail during the midterms.
But far from the spotlight is a woman who helped make all that happen: Louisa Terrell.
As the director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, Terrell, 53, leads a team that is the president’s collective eyes and ears in Congress.
“Making sure we’re responding, making sure we’re being proactive, figuring out what’s happening here in this building,” Terrell told CNN, explaining her job while standing in front of the Capitol, where she spends a considerable amount of time even though she works for the White House.
She describes her role as a conductor for moving Biden’s agenda through Congress.
“You want to be talking to committees, caucuses. Who’s talking to leadership? Who are the up-and-comers? What’s the floor action? What’s running quickly? What’s slowing down? And you need all these sort of tentacles out there, and then bringing that back every day.”
But unlike an actual conductor who is front and center of an orchestra, Terrell operates very much behind the scenes.
In fact, when we sat down for our conversation in the White House Executive Office Building, she said it was her first television interview – ever.
Terrell’s years of experience in Washington have been critical to her success. She first started on the Hill over 20 years ago as a staffer for then-Sen. Biden on the Judiciary Committee. Looking back, she describes herself at the time as being just a “gal from Delaware,” in awe of the experienced legal clerks and seasoned staffers surrounding her. She quickly found her footing and thrived, going on to serve as Biden’s deputy chief of staff and later worked in the Obama administration’s Office of Legal Affairs – the very team she now leads.
Even with her expansive resume, however, Terrell readily admits that today’s Washington is tougher to navigate than the one she first arrived in two decades ago.
“The extremes have gotten extreme and I think that makes it harder,” she said. “You have to really work a lot harder to find where you can meet in the middle.”
Being able to call on the personal relationships she’s forged over the years on Capitol Hill proved critical to working across the aisle to find that middle ground, particularly given Democrats’ razor-thin majorities.
“I’ll be very clear on what the president’s position is and why we want to see what we want to see done,” she said of her conversations with Republican lawmakers. “Republicans know that when this White House – and whether it’s us on our team or a senior official – gives the word, then we stand by our word. And I think that kind of credibility on the Hill has been very important to move things.”
Deep relationships matter too, she said.
“You get fuel from the other people you work with. And I get an incredible amount of fuel from the senior team here at the White House and just people who have years and years of experience and relationships in those matters.”
It’s the kind of work that can make or break a president, and even though it’s largely unheralded, that doesn’t mean it goes unnoticed. Following her confirmation to the Supreme Court as its first Black justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson included Terrell in her shout-outs as one of the “brilliant folks” who helped make the historic achievement possible.
A lifelong Biden connection
Terrell’s longest relationship in the White House is with the president himself. Though their professional relationship started when she came to Washington two decades ago, she first met Biden when she was just 5 years old.
“I met Beau Biden in kindergarten,” Terrell, who is from Wilmington, recalled with a smile. “It (was) a very quick bike ride from my house to where Beau grew up. So we were childhood friends (and) stayed friends for … all our adulthood.”
She remembers visiting the Biden household as a kid, sharing with CNN a running joke from her childhood.
“When we would go to Beau’s house, there was a fax machine in the living room and all you needed to know (was), do not screw up the fax machine,” she says with a laugh. “And again, this is Delaware and it was probably the first fax machine in Delaware, this is high tech equipment.”
Terrell’s lifelong relationship with the Biden family means she brings a unique perspective to her work in the White House.
“He knows my folks and just being connected that way,” she said. “You know where the person came from and I think that helps.”
“It brings a warmth to the work and I feel very, very lucky about that,” she added.
Terrell said her friend Beau, who died of a brain tumor in 2015, is always on her mind.
“You want to represent what … the President wants you to do,” she said. “And then there’s always this other question of, what would Beau do? And I think of those things as kind of intertwined and they’re part of the background driver of how we do the work.”
Paying it forward for women
Two years into her work on the Judiciary Committee, Terrell became pregnant. She says Biden’s office maintained a family-first culture. But as she continued her career in Washington, her kids got a bit older, and the balancing act became more complicated.
“I had the job in the Obama administration when my kids were say, like, around 6 and 8 – or 4 and 6. It’s all a little bit of a blur,” she joked.
She describes her time after work as “bed, bath and beyond,” an entire “second shift” after a full day at the office. It’s something she’s extra mindful of now, as a senior woman in the administration.
“I look across the White House, the women whose kids are that age, and you really have to (remember) how long their days and their nights are,” Terrell said. “And then to think about the kind of performance and the kind of 100% they’re giving at the office every day. I have so much gratitude and admiration.”
Women having a seat at the table is not just a phrase in Terrell’s office. When CNN stopped by one of her team meetings in the West Wing, the room was packed with young staffers – mostly women. Terrell says that was a conscious decision, not because of their gender, but because they were the best for the job.
“(The) expectation is, be ready to contribute. And that’s kind of what I mean – be prepared and ready to play,” she said of the more junior staff. “Don’t be afraid to do that.”
But when asked what advice she would give to young women starting out in government today, Terrell didn’t hesitate.
“I think that women today are way braver than I was,” she said. “It’s really impressive. So, I kind of think they don’t need my advice, actually, so, yeah, they don’t need me. I’m just happy to have drinks and coffee with them when they’ll take me,” she said with a laugh.
New challenges ahead
Terrell and her team are knee-deep in negotiations for the final weeks of a Democratic House majority, which means competing priorities for the rest of the lame duck session – the most important of which is Congress’ basic function of funding the government.
As some Democrats tried to squeeze in legislation to regulate social media companies, Terrell’s stint at Facebook raised some questions among some advocacy groups, though Terrell maintains her stint at the tech giant 10 years ago doesn’t conflict with the president’s legislative agenda.
“I think the president kind of came into office and campaigned on this about a very pro-competition, pro-accountability and pro-transparency in social media platforms, which obviously, what they are today is not what they were 10 years ago. So we worked really hard, I think, to promote those executive actions, the regulatory actions, the people that we brought into the administration to work on those, and worked hard on legislative pieces, and hope to continue to do that next year.”
And though the Democratic majority in the Senate will slightly expand in January, Terrell’s office is on the front lines preparing for Republicans to take over the House and launch a wave of congressional investigations into Biden officials.
“There’s obviously going to be a big piece of, ‘This is oversight’ – you’ve heard this – ‘We are watching,’ and that’s just to be expected,” Terrell says. “I think what the perspective of the president and the team here is, you can’t let that kind of swamp the boat.”
“I think the president said that he’s ready to work with anyone who wants to work with him, hopes that Republicans will do this, and that they will get the people’s work done and not go down the proverbial rabbit holes of oversight.”
She insists her team’s relationships with not just Democrats but with Republicans across the aisle will pay off.
“The kind of relationships you have with Republicans, we’ve been working on them the whole time,” she said. “There are folks in our shop, and again, folks here in the White House, who have some of those relationships. And so, it won’t feel like we’re parachuting in. It’ll just feel like a Chapter Two.”