STATECRAFT JUNE 5, 2013
Today, Barack Obama stopped the music on yet another round of cadre-shifting musical chairs. And this time, the reshuffle left Special Assistant to the President and former journalist Samantha Power in the U.N. ambassador’s chair, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the national security advisor’s chair, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon with no chair at all. Billed by the Times as “a major shakeup,” this round was wholly predictable.
In fact, it had been scheduled back in December, when Susan Rice, then the favorite to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, pulled out of the running amid a storm of controversy over Benghazi. Back then, Rice, who was essentially eased out of the pre-nomination process by the White House, told me that she had “had a warm conversation” with Obama, which made her feel better. White House advisors were openly talking even then about Rice getting the national security post. In the months since, that chatter, from people in the White House and close to Rice, has only intensified. One source close to Rice told me that they were simply waiting for Donilon to get up out of that chair.
The more ironic twist in this is that this job, now seen by everyone as Rice’s consolation prize, was actually the job she had wanted way back in early 2009. She had been one of the founding members of the Obama campaign’s foreign policy team, having thrown in her lot with him early despite her deep ties to Clintonland and that going with Obama then seemed like a career-ender. As I recount in my December profile of Rice, she was none too pleased.
But when the election was over, Obama nominated Clinton for secretary of state and appointed James L. Jones as national security advisor, the position Rice had coveted. Like others, Rice was bitter and disappointed, but, ever the loyal soldier, she observed that the only people to get their first choice jobs were Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama himself. (Rice disputed this account, saying, “My preference was what the president wanted me to do.”)
But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Rice has had to wait four years to get the job she wanted four years ago. Most everyone who has dealt with Rice, while acknowledging her brilliance and awesome work ethic, has noted, as one foreign policy insider told me, “Every job she’s had, she’s had four or five years too soon.” This is more than a sexist remark about a young overachieving black woman. The speed of her ascent is, in part, what has made her the polarizing personality that she is today. For example, when she first worked at the State Department from 1997-2001 as assistant secretary for African affairs, she may have been one of the chief architects of Bill Clinton’s Africa policy, but she had a hell of a time inside the Department.
Politically, though, Rice had a tough time. At meetings, “she was often the youngest person in the room,” recalls her assistant during that period, Annette Bushelle. “Those older and more seasoned officers—most of them male—thought that she was a bit young and inexperienced.” This led, perhaps, to a self-reinforcing spiral. Rice can seem spiny because she knows how she’s perceived. “Publicly, she’s just 48, she is an incredible over-achiever and she’s got a lot of detractors that think she got too far, too quickly,” says a friend and colleague. For each staunch ally who praises her warmth and smarts, she seems to have made an enemy. There are no Rice agnostics.
National security advisor is the perfect job for Rice in large part because she is so much like Obama. Like him, she works with a tight inner circle, and politicking does not come naturally to her, according to her family and colleagues. Like Obama, she prefers the data and wonkery to grand theories. This has made her flexible and pragmatic, and, for her critics, frustratingly hard to predict. (She has been labeled, derogatorily, both an interventionist and a non-interventionist.) In this, she is just like her boss, in large part because she’s helped shape Obama’s foreign policy views. Rice, who has become a friend and a fixture inside the Obamas’ inner sanctum, was advising the President even when he was a Senator. She was also one of the architects of the Phoenix project, a white paper that laid out Obama’s foreign policy views early in the campaign. Given that her views and Obama’s line up in a kind of perfect policy eclipse -- heck, she made his views -- working together this closely will likely be a breeze.