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Gina Raimondo, a Rising Star within the Biden Administration, Faces a $100 Billion Test


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, was meeting with students at Purdue University in September when she spotted a well-known face. Ms. Raimondo beamed as she greeted the chief executive of SkyWater Technology, a chip company that had announced plans to construct a $1.8 billion manufacturing facility next to the Purdue campus.

“We’re super excited in regards to the Indiana announcement,” she said. “Call me in the event you need anything.”

Nowadays, Ms. Raimondo, a former Rhode Island governor, is crucial phone call in Washington that many chief executives could make. As the US embarks on its biggest foray into industrial policy since World War II, Ms. Raimondo has the responsibility of doling out a surprising sum of money to states, research institutions and corporations like SkyWater.

She can also be on the epicenter of a growing Cold War with China because the Biden administration uses her agency’s expansive powers to attempt to make America’s semiconductor industry more competitive. At the identical time, the administration is choking off Beijing’s access to advanced chips and other technology critical to China’s military and economic ambitions.

China has responded angrily, with its leader, Xi Jinping, criticizing what he called “politicizing and weaponizing economic and trade ties” during a gathering with President Biden this month, in line with the official Chinese summary of his comments.

The Commerce Department, under Ms. Raimondo’s leadership, is now poised to start distributing nearly $100 billion — roughly 10 times the department’s annual budget — to accumulate the U.S. chip industry and expand broadband access throughout the country.

How Ms. Raimondo handles that task may have big implications for the US economy going forward. Many view the trouble as the most effective — and only — bet for the US to position itself in industries of the long run, like artificial intelligence and supercomputing, and make sure that the country has a secure supply of the chips needed for national security.

However the risks are similarly huge. Critics of the Biden administration’s plans have noted that the federal government might not be the most effective judge of which technologies to back. They’ve warned that if the administration gets it mistaken, the US may give up its leadership in key technologies for good.

“The essence of commercial policy is you’re gambling,” said William Reinsch, a trade expert on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. “She’s going to be in a tricky spot because there probably can be failures or disappointments along the best way,” he said.

The end result could even have ramifications for Ms. Raimondo’s political ambitions. In lower than two years in Washington, Ms. Raimondo, 51, has emerged as one among President Biden’s most trusted cabinet officials. Company executives describe her as a skillful and charismatic politician who’s each engaged and accessible in an administration often known for its skepticism of huge business.

Ms. Raimondo’s work has earned her praise from Republicans and Democrats, together with labor unions and corporations. Her supporters say she could ascend to a different cabinet position, run for the Senate or perhaps mount a presidential bid.

Here’s where the president stands after the midterm elections.

But she is under close watch by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and another left-wing Democrats, who’ve criticized her as being too solicitous of corporate interests. Some progressive groups have accused Ms. Raimondo of being under the influence of huge tech firms and not thoroughly disclosing those ties.

“Secretary Raimondo’s job is to assist grow an economy that works for everybody, to not be the chief lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce,” Ms. Warren said in an announcement to The Recent York Times. “I even have real concerns in regards to the department’s approach, whether it’s approving assault weapon sales, negotiating trade deals or supporting big tech corporations.”

Those criticisms have been fanned by rumors in recent months that the White Home is considering Ms. Raimondo to function the subsequent Treasury secretary if Janet L. Yellen, the present occupant of that post, eventually steps down.

Caitlin Legacki, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department, dismissed speculation about Ms. Raimondo’s next moves as “wheel spinning.”

“As has been previously reported, Janet Yellen is staying at Treasury and Gina Raimondo is staying at Commerce,” Ms. Legacki wrote in an email.

Ms. Raimondo says she is desperate to lead the Commerce Department through its next chapter because it tries to accumulate America’s manufacturing sector. While the size of the duty is daunting, it thus far has not fazed Ms. Raimondo. Colleagues and a member of the family describe her as having little aversion to conflict and say she is drawn to messy policy problems by an impulse to repair them.

Ms. Raimondo grew up in Rhode Island in a close-knit Roman Catholic family, raised partly by a brother 13 years her senior who recalled wrestling along with her and throwing her within the water on the beach.

She was “afraid of just about nothing,” said her brother, Dr. Thomas J. Raimondo, a pulmonologist in Warwick, R.I. “I feel because we brought her up tough, but No. 2, she’ll enter a conflict determining, ‘How am I going to repair this?’”

Within the sixth grade, she was also deeply influenced by watching her father lose his job on the Bulova watch factory as American manufacturers began sending jobs overseas. The job was a source of pride for her father and allowed him to offer for his family, and the loss sent him right into a funk for years, Ms. Raimondo said in an interview. Her mother had shone in a job in human relations at U.S. Rubber, Ms. Raimondo said, but she was dismissed when she became pregnant, a standard policy on the time.

As Ms. Raimondo grew up, other manufacturers like Timex and U.S. Rubber shut their doors, and he or she saw Rhode Island’s schools and infrastructure begin to fray. The importance of those closures would resonate when Ms. Raimondo studied economics as an undergraduate at Harvard, where her professors fed her a “regular weight-reduction plan” of how trickle-down Reaganomics had hollowed out the U.S. economy, she said.

It was also this decaying system — specifically, Rhode Island’s decision to slash public bus routes and library hours when budgets fell short — that ultimately drove Ms. Raimondo to depart a lucrative job in enterprise capital and run for state treasurer in 2010. There, she made changes to shore up the state’s pension system, clashing with unions and progressive Democrats in the method.

She was elected because the state’s first female governor in 2014. In that job, she introduced free community college and all-day kindergarten, repeatedly raised the minimum wage and cut business taxes. She also courted controversy by proposing a toll on industrial trucks to rebuild the state’s roads and bridges. In 2016, 18-wheel trucks circled Rhode Island’s State House for months, blasting their horns in protest and rattling the nerves of Ms. Raimondo’s staff.

Mr. Biden, then vice chairman, got here to her defense. He traveled to Windfall to applaud her efforts and inspect an area bridge that he said was being held up by “Lincoln Logs.”

“Let the horns blow,” Mr. Biden said. “Fix the bridges and the roads.”

Ms. Raimondo was also gaining political support elsewhere within the Democratic Party. She grew close with Mike Donilon, a top adviser to Mr. Biden, and his brother Thomas E. Donilon, who served as national security adviser to President Barack Obama. In 2020, she was a national co-chair of Michael R. Bloomberg’s presidential campaign and was floated as a possible running mate.

Mr. Biden and his team vetted Ms. Raimondo as a possible vice chairman. After Mr. Biden won, they considered her to steer the Department of Health and Human Services before deciding on the Commerce Department, a sprawling agency that oversees trade, weather monitoring, the Census and technology regulation.

At Commerce, Ms. Raimondo has taken an lively role in trade negotiations, at times overshadowing the Office of the US Trade Representative, which traditionally crafts the country’s trade deals. She played an outsized role in among the administration’s major legislative victories, including reaching out to executives to win their support for the infrastructure bill and leaning on her relationships with lawmakers and executives to get funding for the semiconductor industry put into law.

Ms. Raimondo has also presided over essentially the most aggressive use of the Commerce Department’s regulatory powers in a generation. While the department is well-known for its role in promoting business, it has an increasingly essential role in regulating it by policing the sort of advanced technology that U.S. firms can share with China, Russia and other geopolitical rivals.

In February, her department moved swiftly with allies to clamp down on technology shipments to Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. And in October, the department issued sweeping restrictions on advanced semiconductor exports to China in an try and curtail the country’s access to critical technology that might be utilized in war.

But Ms. Raimondo has also received some criticism on that front. Republican lawmakers and others say she has not moved forcefully enough to stop U.S. corporations from enriching themselves by selling sensitive technology to China. Particularly, critics say that the Commerce Department has issued too many special licenses that provide corporations exemptions to the restrictions on selling to China.

In an interview, Ms. Raimondo said that the claim was “just not true” and that exemptions were based on technical specifications, not political considerations.

The restrictions that the Biden administration issued on China’s semiconductor industry last month are “the boldest, most coherent strategic set of policies that the Commerce Department has ever rolled out with respect to export controls,” Ms. Raimondo said.

In terms of overseeing industry, Ms. Raimondo has said she sees reasonable regulation of business as a necessity, saying corporations left to their very own devices will “get greedy.” And he or she has been outspoken about improving living conditions for America’s poor, often decrying an financial system where many ladies and other people of color can work 60-hour weeks but still live in poverty.

But unlike some progressive Democrats, Ms. Raimondo clearly doesn’t see a difficulty with being labeled “pro-business.”

“I come from a spot in my politics that, fundamentally, Americans are pro-job, pro-business, pro-wealth,” she said. “Americans wish to make cash and feel like they’ll make cash.”

She added: “American entrepreneurship is the envy of the world. We cannot snuff that out.”

While she got here from humble beginnings, Ms. Raimondo and her husband, Andy Moffit, a former executive at McKinsey & Company who’s now chief people officer at a health care technology platform, have amassed a net price of between $4 million and $12.5 million, in line with government disclosure forms.

As her department turns to funding semiconductor projects, Ms. Raimondo has promised to make use of tough standards to judge company applications, including prohibiting money from getting used for stock buybacks or to make investments in advanced technology in China. The Commerce Department is anticipated to steer the work of reviewing and approving grants, but any awards to corporations of greater than $3 billion can be approved by Mr. Biden himself.

At an event held by the Atlantic Council in September, Ms. Raimondo acknowledged that folks were watching closely and that the administration’s credibility was on the road.

“Did you get it right? Did you meet the mission? Was it impactful?” she asked. “And if the reply is yes, I feel we’ll have the opportunity to persuade Congress and others to do more.”

Alan Rappeport contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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