Stefanie Feldman PPS’10 has seen America’s gun control debate play out before. Like many people, she remembers watching the news reports about the murders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
But in the wake of the killings, Feldman, at the time a policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, would get an opportunity most American didn’t—she was part of the team leading the development of policies President Obama and Vice President Biden would issue in order to address gun violence and mental health.
Feldman began by talking with agency staff and other policy experts from across the country about what policies they thought could be keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, make schools safer, and increase access to mental health services.
The President and Vice President put forward a legislative proposal and an initial set of 25 executive actions, drawing on the proposals Feldman and her colleagues compiled. Executive actions are any actions taken by the President, including executive orders, presidential memorandums, and proclamations.
The legislation was thwarted by a minority of Senators. But the executive actions were still implemented, and Feldman and her colleagues also helped identify even more actions to reduce gun violence.
“The President and Vice President said even saving one life from gun violence would be worth it. It was painful to watch the legislation fail. But we made some progress. And some day, we’ll finish the job,” Feldman said.
Feldman initially thought she would go straight to law school after graduating from Duke but after receiving some advice from professors at Duke, she started considering taking a year off and applied for the White House internship program. She was accepted and assigned to Vice President Biden’s office. So, she deferred law school for a year, had a great internship experience, and then spent several more months working in Washington. Right before she was set to leave D.C. and start her first year at law school, she got a call from the Vice President’s office. They wanted her to come work full-time. It wouldn’t be until four years later, when she had risen to the role of the Vice President’s deputy director for domestic and economic policy, that she would leave the White House to finally go to graduate school.
In the Obama White House, Vice President Biden was one of the final people President Obama consulted before making key decisions, Feldman said. Her office’s role, in part, was to help prepare the Vice President to advise the President.
“We made sure he had all the information he needed to be good advisor to President, and we also weighed in on and contributed to the policy development processes at the White House,” Feldman said.
Besides working on gun violence issues, Feldman advised the Vice President on policy areas including health care, energy and the environment, and middle-class economics. She traveled the country with the Vice President as he advocated for the Administration’s policies. She was part of a White House team that helped triage problems after the failed rollout of Healthcare.gov. And she also headed a task force that helped craft 19 executive actions the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration took to improve access to mental health services for service members, veterans, and their families.
With the Vice President’s busy schedule, no day was typical and hours could be long, but Feldman said the work was worth it.
“Our job was to make life better for Americans. To have that as your mission every day – that’s a privilege. It gave me a sense of purpose. Every time I was tired, I reminded myself that I was there to help those working equally long or longer hours than me who were just trying to make ends meet, to get affordable health care, to send their kids to a school free from violence,” she said.
Eventually, she returned to her plan to attend graduate school and enrolled at Yale Law School. But then, this past February, she got another call—asking her to start working for Vice President Biden as Policy Director of the nascent Biden Institute at the University of Delaware’s School of Public Policy & Administration.
The institute is an economic and domestic policy center, and part of Vice President Biden’s post-White House efforts to continue to shape the conversation about policy issues he has cared about for his entire career. Right now, they are focusing on identifying policy solutions to address the challenges posed by automation and other changes in the economy in order to build a future in which there are quality jobs and a thriving middle class.
Feldman, who was a Robertson Scholar as an undergraduate, said she chose to come to Duke because of the policy program. She was a TA for the Introduction to Public Policy course for three years, through which she was mentored by professors Judith Kelley, Don Taylor and Elizabeth Vigdor.
A course she took with Jenni Owen—Sanford’s former policy liaison and now a member of N.C. Gov. Cooper’s staff—is now proving extremely relevant as she works in an academic institution trying to shape policy.
Feldman also is drawing on her senior thesis research on prospects for economic development in rural Appalachia, which she wrote with the guidance of Jenni Owen and Ken Rogerson. She feels a deep attachment to the region, having worked in Eastern Kentucky during the summer after her first year at Duke. That experience and her love of Appalachia has shaped how she views the current political climate after the most recent presidential election.
“I, like many others working in Democratic politics and policy, have been struggling with how we find some consensus as a country without compromising our values,” she said.
Feldman acknowledged that the path to working in policy and politics is not always obvious, but encouraged students to use their summer internships to develop a network of people who can be supportive after graduation.
“The tricky thing is that to build a career in politics takes luck and good timing,” she said. “Be persistent and never forget why you’re interested in public service—or, more accurately, whom you are trying to serve.”