One of the first significant decisions of President Obama’s second term is whether to name U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. White House officials are whispering to the New York Times and other news outlets that Rice is currently Obama’s favorite to fill the top cabinet slot, despite growing GOP opposition in the Senate. Thus far five Republican Senators have come out against Rice, citing her statements about the Sept. 11 Benghazi attacks. But Obama didn’t leave himself much wiggle room with his impassioned defense of Rice at a press conference last week. “When they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me,” Obama said. “And should I choose, if I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity of the State Department, then I will nominate her.”
Obama has other candidates he may consider, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Bill Burns, the current No. 2 at the State Department, who would be the
first second* career diplomat to lead the department if appointed. But Obama and Rice have a close personal relationship, and sometimes trust trumps all. Still, for all the high rewards Obama might perceive in nominating Rice, there are also high risks. Here are some of the pros and cons Obama may be considering as he weighs whether to pick Rice:
Both Senator John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, and Senator Lindsey Graham have vowed they would filibuster Rice’s nomination. On Sunday, ABC’s Jonathan Karl said on This Week that he thought Rice’s nomination would take three weeks to push through. That timeline is ambitious; it would more likely take months.
(VIDEO: 10 Questions for Susan Rice)
Several congressional committees have already said they want to hear Rice’s side of the Benghazi story. If she gives testimony, it would have to be done before any confirmation hearings. And all of these sessions would surely rehash whether or not there was a protest that masked the terrorist attack in Benghazi that took the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. In other words, whether Obama dropped the ball in Benghazi and made Americans less safe, and whether Rice and others tried to cover up the missteps by blaming it on a protest that spiraled out of control.
Republicans clearly want a scalp for what happened in Benghazi. Former CIA director David Petraeus doesn’t fit the bill. Nor does White House spokesman Jay Carney, who went even further than Rice in labeling the attack a simple protest in the days following the tragedy. (Spokesmen are paid liars.) Clinton, who took responsibility in Peru a week after the attack, has yet to actually testify before Congress — she’s slated to do so in coming weeks — but she’s an intensely popular outgoing stateswoman the GOP was loath to attack before the election. Obama has said repeatedly that the buck stops with him, and he should be the subject of their vitriol. But he also just won a significant re-election victory, and Republicans can’t go after him without looking foolish. Which leaves Rice. As long as she’s around, this story has legs, and the higher up she’s elevated, the more Republicans will use her to blast Obama. “Susan Rice is a bit player here,” Graham told Meet the Press on Sunday. “Was [Obama] informed of the June attack on our consulate where they blew a hole where 40 people could go through? Was he aware of the Aug. 15 cable where Stevens was saying we couldn’t withstand a coordinated al-Qaeda attack? There are 10 militia groups all over Benghazi. I blame the President.”
Rice also might be too blunt to be Secretary of State. She can be harsh — she famously flipped Richard Holbrooke the bird in a meeting years ago — and she’s known to have sharp elbows. In the political world these are assets. In the world of diplomacy, they can be problematic. As the New York Times noted in a Sunday profile, when China and Russia blocked a resolution to intervene in Syria, Rice once tweeted, “Disgusted that Russia and China prevented the U.N. Security Council from fulfilling its sole purpose.”
Finally, as Obama noted in his press conference, the people re-elected him to work with the other side, not get mired in partisan fights. “I won’t pretend that figuring out everything else will be easy, but I’m confident we can do it — and I know we have to,” Obama said. “I know that that’s what the American people want us to do. That was the very clear message from the election last week.” As he’s trying to make nice with Republicans on the fiscal cliff, does he want to be provoking them by nominating a partisan to become fourth in line to the Oval Office?
Republicans just lost a bruising election because they lost minorities’ and women’s votes. Do they really want the image of old white guys hectoring an African-American woman? If this is the fight Republicans want to pick, the optics favor the White House.
Pushing Rice’s nomination will be popular with the Democratic base. Obama is ready to disappoint his base with whatever grand bargain he may strike to solve the fiscal cliff. That outrage might be blunted by a bloody confirmation brawl with Republicans over a woman the base loves. Even if Republicans filibuster Rice, she almost certainly would still get the 60 votes needed to overcome such a bloc; she was confirmed by unanimous consent to become U.N. ambassador.
Though she wouldn’t be the first African-American woman elevated to the job — Condoleezza Rice was — she would bring a measure of youth to a building that, under Clinton, only just learned of the existence of Twitter. Susan Rice is just 48. She’s savvy about social media and understands how to cut through the Washington bureaucracy. And she’s learning, even if it’s a trial by fire, to deal with the press.
(PHOTOS: Condoleezza Rice)
Obama, meanwhile, would get to work with a woman he clearly respects and enjoys. Rice is a Rhodes scholar with degrees from Stanford and Oxford. She and her husband recently were invited to the White House for an intimate celebratory dinner with Obama and the First Lady. On the campaign trail in 2008, where Rice served as one of his top foreign policy advisers, they established a great rapport. For a man who has trouble delegating, elevating someone he can trust is no small matter.
Clinton has said she aims to stay in office until the next Secretary is confirmed. But if the process drags out until June, she may leave the State Department in the care of an acting Secretary. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is also reportedly champing at the bit to return home to California, which makes the Pentagon a priority as well and potentially crunches the timeline to fill the post at the State Department. As does Petraeus’ resignation, which created the sudden need for a new CIA director.
With a high-risk, high-reward nomination like Rice, Obama must ask himself if he’s willing to spend the political capital. Is she worth it? These are questions only he can answer.
*Correction: As several smart people have pointed out to me, Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state from Dec. 8, 1992 to Jan. 20, 1993, was the first career foreign service officer to be named secretary of state.