Despite facing one of the closest divided Congresses in history, the Biden administration managed to amass a long list of major legislative achievements in its first two years.
From bipartisan action on infrastructure, gun safety and gay marriage to cross-party bills to tackle climate change and broaden healthcare coverage, this is a record President Joe Biden and the Democrats are eager to trace their campaign trail during the ballot midterms. .
But one woman who helped make it all happen is far from the limelight: Louisa Terrell.
As director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, Terrell, 53, leads a team in Congress with the president’s collective eyes and ears.
“To make sure we’re responsive, proactive, and understand what’s going on in this building,” Terrell told CNN, explaining his work as he stood in front of the Capitol. Despite working for the White House.
He describes Biden’s role as a conductor to bring his agenda to Congress.
“You want to talk to committees, meetings. Who is speaking to leadership? Who are the passers-by? What is floor action? How fast is it running? What is slowing down? And you need all those kind of tentacles there and then you bring it back every day.
But unlike a true conductor who is front and center in an orchestra, Terrell works a lot behind the scenes.
In fact, when we sat down for our conversation in the White House Executive Office Building, he said it was his first television interview ever.
Terrell’s years of experience in Washington are critical to his success. He first started on Hill over 20 years ago as the then-Sen’s cast. Biden on the Judiciary Committee. Looking back, admiring the seasoned legal officers and seasoned staff surrounding her, she describes herself as “a girl from Delaware” at the time. She quickly found her place and succeeded, continuing to serve as Biden’s deputy chief of staff and later working in the Obama administration’s Office of Legal Affairs—the team he now leads.
However, despite his extensive résumé, Terrell quickly admits that navigating today’s Washington is more difficult than where he first arrived two decades ago.
“The extremes have become extreme, and I think that just makes it more difficult,” he said. “You really have to work a lot harder to find where you can meet in the middle.”
His ability to appeal to the personal relationships he’s built over the years on Capitol Hill has proven critical to working down the aisle to find that middle ground, especially given the very thin majority of Democrats.
“I’ll be very clear on what the president’s position is and why we want to see what we want to see,” he said of his talks with Republican lawmakers. “Republicans know that when this White House – whether it’s us on our team or a senior official – makes a promise, we’ll keep our word. And I think that this kind of credibility at Hill is crucial to moving things forward.”
Deep relationships are also important, he said.
“You get fuel from other people you work with. And here I am getting an incredible amount of fuel from the senior team in the White House and people who have years of experience and relationships in just these matters.
It’s the kind of business that can win or break a president, and while he’s largely unannounced, that doesn’t mean it goes unnoticed. After being confirmed as the first Black justice in the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson included Terrell as one of the “brilliant people” who helped make historical success possible.
Terrell’s longest relationship in the White House is with the president himself. Although their professional relationship began two decades ago when he arrived in Washington, he first met Biden when he was 5 years old.
“I met Beau Biden in kindergarten,” Terrell of Wilmington remembered with a smile. “It was such a quick bike ride from my house to where Beau grew up. So we were childhood friends (and) remained friends throughout our adulthood.”
He remembers visiting the Biden family as a child and sharing a prank with CNN that continues from his childhood.
“When we got to Beau’s house, there was a fax machine in the living room and all you had to know was not to mess up the fax machine,” she says with a laugh. “And again, this was the first fax machine in Delaware and possibly Delaware, it’s high-tech equipment.”
Terrell’s lifelong relationship with the Biden family means he brings a unique perspective to his job at the White House.
“He knows my family and just connects that way,” she said. “You know where the person is coming from and I think that helps.”
“It brings warmth to the work and I feel very, very lucky about it,” he added.
Terrell said his friend Beau, who died of a brain tumor in 2015, was always on his mind.
“You want to represent… what the President wants you to do,” he said. “And then there’s always another question, what would Beau do? And I think these are intertwined things, and they’re part of the driving force behind how we do business.”
Two years after her tenure on the Judiciary Committee, Terrell became pregnant. He says Biden’s office perpetuates the family culture first. But as she continued her career in Washington, her children got a little older and the balancing act got more complicated.
“I got a job under Obama when my kids were about 6 and 8 – or 4 and 6 years old. It’s all a little blurry,” he joked.
He describes his time after work as “bed, bath and beyond”, a full “second shift” after a full day at the office. This is something she is very careful about now as a senior woman in management.
“I’m looking at the White House, women with kids that age, and you really have to (remember) how long their days and nights are,” Terrell said. “Then think about how they perform every day in the office and how they give their 100%. My gratitude and admiration is endless.”
Having women sitting at the table is not just a phrase in Terrell’s office. When CNN stopped by one of the team meetings at the West Wing, the room was filled with young employees – mostly women. Terrell says it was a conscious decision, not because of their gender, but because they were the best for the job.
“The expectation is to be ready to contribute. And that’s what I mean – be prepared and ready to play,” he said of the younger roster. “Don’t be afraid to do it.”
But when asked what advice he would give to young women entering government today, Terrell did not hesitate.
“I think women today are much braver than I am,” she said. “It’s really impressive. I mean, I actually think they don’t need my advice, so yeah, they don’t need me. I’m happy to have a drink and coffee with them when they’re going to pick me up,” he said with a laugh.
Terrell and his team are knee-deep in deliberations for the final weeks of the Democratic House majority, which means competing priorities for the remainder of the lame duck session—most importantly, Congress’ primary function of funding the government.
While some Democrats have sought to tighten legislation to regulate social media companies, Terrell’s post at Facebook has raised some questions among some advocacy groups, but Terrell’s tenure at the tech giant 10 years ago does not contradict the president’s legislative agenda.
“I think the president kind of took office and ran a pro-competitive, pro-accountability and pro-transparency campaign on social media platforms, which clearly, what they are today is not what they were 10 years ago. So, I think, these administrative actions, regulatory actions, the ones we brought into the administration. We’ve worked really hard to get people to work on these, and we’ve worked hard on the legislative pieces, and we hope to continue doing that next year.
And while the Democratic majority in the Senate will expand slightly in January, Terrell’s office is on the frontlines for Republicans to take over the House and spark a wave of congressional investigations into Biden officials.
“Obviously it’s going to be a big ‘This is an oversight’ – you heard it – ‘We’re watching’ and that can only be expected,” Terrell says. “Whatever the perspective of the president and the team here, you can’t let something like that sink the ship.”
“I think the president said he’s ready to work with anyone who wants to work with him, he hopes the Republicans will do that and get the people done and not fall into the proverbial rabbit hole.”
He insists his team will pay off not only with Democrats but also with Republicans on the other end of the aisle.
“The kind of relationships you have with Republicans, we’re always working on them,” he said. “We have people in our shop and again here at the White House who have had some of these relationships. And so, it won’t feel like we’re skydiving. It’s just going to feel like Chapter Two.