When the New York Times broke the news Wednesday morning of National Security Adviser Tom Donilon's resignation, it wrote that naming U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as his replacement represents a "defiant gesture to Republicans." Others called Rice's promotion Obama's "end run." One observer tweeted that with the naming of Rice, "Obama takes it to the hoop, daring opposition to foul him." And writing for Bloomberg, Jeffrey Goldberg called Rice's promotion a "thumb in the eyes of her Senate critics," noting that "revenge is a dish best served cold. Except when it's best served hot."
It's hard not to see the irony of the moment. Rice is a controversial figure among Republicans for comments she made on Sunday talk shows in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Benghazi. Using prepared talking points, she said the event was in response to an Internet video rather than an act of terrorism. Those comments, in combination with the GOP's uproar over the administration's response to the Benghazi attacks, ultimately led Rice to withdraw from consideration for Secretary of State, the position Obama reportedly wanted her to have. That role would have required a difficult Senate confirmation process. The position of national security adviser does not.
That said, the NSA role may just be more powerful. In a tough profile of Donilon published just last week, Foreign Policy magazine examined the "enormous internal control" the national security adviser has amassed—power that could actually grow given that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry are still new to their jobs. The story refers to the "vast influence" the adviser holds over the president and the "extraordinarily tight leash" Donilon has held over foreign policy.
Whether or not Rice can maintain that kind of control (and it's unclear from the Foreign Policy profile whether that would be a good thing), the national security adviser has become one of a president's most powerful behind-the-scenes operators. As Bloomberg's Goldberg writes, "Rice will be, in effect, Kerry’s supervisor," one that puts her in the president's "innermost ring of power."
So was the president's promotion of Rice really an act of defiance? Is Obama really trying to make an "end run" around Republicans, daring them by his appointment or gleefully trying to exact revenge? Who knows. But had he really wanted Rice in the powerful national security adviser's spot, wouldn't he have put her there in the first place?
My guess is this is far more about Rice's loyalty to the president and who he believes will be best for the job than any nose-thumbing at the Senate. At the very least, the Benghazi situation showed the president how she handles herself in a crisis, and she's been seen as a front-runner for the job for some time.
Perhaps there's a certain amount of satisfaction for Obama in Rice's promotion, given how visibly upset he was by the way she was treated by Republicans in previous months. But in all likelihood, her ascendance is a sign that she's won him over as a valuable member of his team and he wants a key role for her in his administration.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.