The life of a progressive-leaning newspaper columnist: Roughly 51 weeks out of the year, I use this wonderful platform to jump on my soapbox about global warming, but now comes the one week where I complain about how freaking cold it is. In theory, I could spend my entire working-from-home existence writing from underneath four blankets, but my real bosses, my dogs Daisy and Bella, have other ideas.

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Foreign-policy whiz Susan Rice is losing the wars on college debt, immigration

When Joe Biden won the presidency in November 2020, he was eager to bring his good friend and West Wing neighbor from the glory days of the Obama administration, Susan Rice, back into the highest levels of government. And why not? A Rhodes scholar and youthful Africa-policy whiz who served Barack Obama as ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser, Rice is without dispute one of America’s top foreign policy experts.

There was just one catch. Team Biden didn’t think Rice would be able to win Senate confirmation if they nominated her for a post like Secretary of State. This choice is rooted in Republicans’ long and often ridiculous (and yet, arguably, successful) crusade to end Hillary Clinton’s career by turning a 2012 terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi into some kind of crippling Obama scandal. That campaign had unfairly tarnished Rice as collateral damage.

So Biden and his allies had a plan. Why not harness Rice’s brainpower and experience in a job that didn’t require Senate confirmation, as head of the new president’s domestic policy council? True, Rice didn’t really have any experience in the domestic policy arena, but what could possibly go wrong?

A lot, as we now know, one year later.

According to numerous reports from Beltway journalists who track the palace intrigue inside the Biden White House, Rice is the cautious, centrist, take-it-slow voice behind several policy misfires. That includes his seeming break with his progressive campaign promises on student debt and immigration, moves that are baffling to the coalition that rewarded the Delaware Democrat with 81 million votes.

The college loan debacle is the most recent and possibly the most damaging to Biden politically. During his winning campaign, the president explicitly promised to use his executive powers to cancel up to $10,000 of an individual’s federal student loan — agreeing that much of America’s gobsmacking $1.7 trillion higher-ed debt load is the result of bad faith that falls heavier on Black and brown borrowers, and on women. Allies like Sen. Elizabeth Warren have pushed to go even higher. Instead, he’s done nothing but extend a pandemic-related freeze on payments out to May. Rice is said to be driving his change of heart.

“Everyone I talk to views Susan Rice as hostile to any sort of aggressive pro-student agenda,” one progressive operative told Politico’s Playbook last week. The site also reported that those pushing Biden to keep his debt-forgiveness promises believe that “the hesitancy [is] a result of Biden’s inner circle being largely older and wealthy, with little understanding of how the current student loan burden affects younger generations.”

That would seemingly describe the 57-year-old Rice, born at the very end of the post-war baby boom. While her grandparents were working-class strivers including Jamaican immigrants on her mom’s side, her successful, high-ranking-government-official parents sent her to D.C.’s elite National Cathedral School and then to Stanford. One interesting quirk: Her mom Lois Dickson Rice played a key role in shaping the federal Pell Grants for college students, which may explain Team Biden’s more aggressive push for expanding those loans over other kinds of relief, even though Pell Grants have fallen far short of keeping up with soaring college costs.

» READ MORE: From college to climate, Democrats are sealing their doom by selling out young voters | Will Bunch

But what best explains Rice’s hardline stance at the border, which has both stunned and disappointed many core Democratic voters? The promise of a kinder, gentler immigration policy had inspired them to work so hard to get Donald Trump out of the White House. Numerous reports over the summer pegged Rice as the Biden insider taking the hardest stance on border issues, frustrating pro-Biden activists hoping to reduce detention of migrants and make it easier for refugees to seek asylum here.

News reports describe Rice — along with key insiders like national security adviser Jake Sullivan — as a leader of the faction inside the Biden White House that, as one administration appointee told the Washington Post, views the crisis of border migration “almost entirely from a political lens” rather than a moral one. For these presidential advisers, a focus on national security and avoiding messy TV footage has led to programs that are either a continuation or deeply similar to Trump policies that were scorned by the left.

This has included the much-malignedRemain in Mexico” program that has kept asylum seekers in squalid camps just south of the border, as well as the dumbfounding decision to fly thousands of Haitian refugees — many of whom have been living for years in South America — back to a homeland that is torn apart by violence and social unrest. Indeed, the enduring image of one year of Biden’s immigration policy is the Border Patrol officer on horseback using his reins to block a terrified Haitian migrant.

So what gives? Rice just feels like the wrong person in the wrong job. She has a toxic blend of 1980s-bred faith in the faux meritocracy, a bizarre fear of Fox News chyrons, as well as a go-to instinct for displays of toughness that one would expect from a foreign policy veteran, when America’s domestic problems require empathy.

Rice’s policy advice is a moral disgrace for both the under-35s who can’t buy a house or even get married because of the student-loan racket, and to people seeking asylum here. But these maneuvers are also politically disastrous. Not a single Fox News viewer is swayed by a centrist approach on college debt or immigration, but the young voters who showed up for Biden in 2020 are getting very discouraged, very fast. The record of under-30 voters taking part in midterm elections is historically bleak, but these unforced errors are teeing up a bloodbath.

Biden should think about assembling a new domestic policy team before we get too deep into 2022, if he’s serious about keeping our democracy into 2025.

Yo, do this

  • The occasional Arctic weather day like today aside, I consider January the most wonderful time of the year. The Christmas decorations are down, the one holiday where I don’t have to do anything (my birthday) is on tap, and the NFL playoffs are on — with a surprise gate-crasher, our Philadelphia Eagles. This Sunday at 1 p.m. on Fox is the perfect time to watch the Birds do their January thing and beat up over-the-hill Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs. Predicting the wacky score of 41-33.

  • January is also the month for getting under the covers with a good book. Despite my audiobook obsession, I went crazy and procured the hardcover edition of the new novel Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. Named for the early 20th century, pre-interstate coast-to-coast roadway (U.S. 30 here in Philly’s western suburbs), the book takes readers and its young, colorful characters on a road trip through the 1950s’ America once chronicled in real time by Jack Kerouac. It’s a No. 1 best-seller so if you’ve also read it, tell me what you think!

Ask me anything

Question: Is there any chance Democrats will manage to pass voting rights legislation? — Via @WasserL on Twitter

Answer: That’s certainly the question of the day. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are traveling to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s hometown of Atlanta on Tuesday to deliver much-hyped speeches urging passing of the bills now mired in the Senate. Although I’d hoped for a prime-time address in the Oval Office, it’s good that Biden and Democratic proponents are finally putting this on the front burner. But with the Senate’s archaic rules demanding 60 votes, nearly rock-solid GOP opposition, and the unfathomable intransigence around the filibuster from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the only word that will matter in Biden’s speech is, “how?” And I don’t think he has an answer.

Backstory on surviving in the age of omicron

Stop me if you heard this one before: I did all of the right things. I got my two shots of the Pfizer vaccine just before Easter, then procured my booster shot in the fall, and — except for maybe a week of irrational exuberance over the summer — kept wearing a mask at the supermarket, the hardware store, and other indoor public places. And yet last Tuesday, not long after last week’s newsletter went out, I learned that I’d tested positive for COVID-19 — almost certainly the omicron strain which (you may have heard) is making the rounds these days, even among the fully vaccinated and the relatively careful.

» READ MORE: Wake up, America! COVID cases are spiking again. Would it kill you to wear a mask? | Will Bunch

What’s it like? For the first two-and-half days — arriving around 10 p.m. on my stay-at-home New Year’s Eve ... how appropriate — there was a middling cough and sore throat, runny nose, and aspirin-worthy headache and fatigue. (I still wrote this column, though.) By the time I could get tested and got the email with the results, I was feeling better. Mild? I’d say so, but that’s a loaded word because everyone’s experience is different. In my case, being triple-vaxxed meant that by the time the coronavirus had morphed into a more contagious but less virulent strain, my body — despite a couple of underlying medical conditions — handled it like a routine winter cold. I did all the right things — and so should you. Please get vaccinated and wear a mask in public places, for yourself and the folks you care about.

Inquirer reading list

  • For my Sunday column, I revisited my origin story as a lifelong politics geek — as a 14-year-old glued to 1973′s Senate Watergate Committee hearings that marked the beginning of the end for Richard Nixon. The slow-burn work of the House Select Committee on January 6 — especially it’s recent series of letters, subpoenas, and carefully targeted news leaks — has convinced me that the panel is building a case for a criminal conspiracy led by Donald Trump, with prime-time hearings aimed at swaying public opinion. The cool part? I asked John Dean, and he agreed with me!

  • Philadelphia is hardly immune from the pathologies of our ridiculously unequal America, and sometimes it feels like the epicenter — especially in the wake of the tragic Fairmount fire that killed nine children and three adults. I wrote over the weekend that while the fatal blaze surely calls out for more focus and spending on fire safety, we can’t stop there. These deaths must be a turning point for both addressing a real housing crisis in America, and for changing a society that pours billions into fighter jets or “rainy day” funds but can’t find the dollars for things like fire escapes.

  • The fire — one of the deadliest in modern times in America, at least until Sunday when an apartment fire in the Bronx killed 17 — was of course a national story, but here in Philadelphia the victims were our neighbors, our schoolmates, our family. And like any great news organization, The Inquirer sprang to life. Our reporters painted vivid portraits of the lives that were snuffed out way too soon, followed the investigation into what apparently sparked the fire, exposed the lack of fire extinguishers and other safety flaws in a three-story rowhouse packed with some 26 occupants, and took a deep dive into an affordable housing crisis. It’s these moments of civic mourning and outrage that make it impossible to imagine an American city without the power of journalism. Subscribe to The Inquirer, because we always want to be here when you need us.