Solving the Susan Rice predicament


U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, leaves the U.S. Capitol after meeting with members of the U.S. Senate November 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/GETTY IMAGES)
November 28, 2012

Replacing Hillary Clinton was always going to be hard.

Even before the attacks in Benghazi became a political controversy, the job of filling Clinton’s globe-trotting heels as secretary of state was a monumental one for President Obama. With high approval ratings, a record of success that “relies on development and civilian power as much as military might” and a status as the easy favorite for a 2016 Democratic presidential nod, Clinton was always going to be a tough act to follow.

But in recent days, Obama’s decision has become that much harder. The president has found himself in a particularly precarious place as he seeks to replace Clinton, who has been clear that she only intends to hold the job for one term. Talk of John Kerry getting the top diplomatic job has quieted, especially since the election, as it would open up a Senate seat that could go to Republican Scott Brown. Other names—ranging from Tom Donilon to Dick Lugar to even Bill Clinton—seem to be everything from less likely to far-fetched.   

And of course, one candidate widely seen as a contender, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, has come under fire from Republicans for statements she made in the days following the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. After a meeting that was supposed to “make nice” between Senate Republicans and Rice, tensions are even more strained, with both Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) saying they were “more troubled” or “more disturbed” than they were before the tete-a-tete. Ayotte has even said she “would place a hold on anybody who wanted to be promoted for any job who had a role in the Benghazi situation.”

The situation leaves Obama in that proverbial spot between a rock and a hard place. Name anyone other than Rice—even if she were to say she didn’t want the position—and he will look as if he’s cowing to Republican pressure. Choose Rice, and he starts off his second term with what is sure to be a distracting and difficult confirmation process. Neither option is good, leaving some to suggest the best option is for Clinton to just stay put for a while longer.

While that could make things easier, it’s not necessarily the right answer, either. It’s said that a leader’s most important job is to get the right people in the right jobs, and then give them the space to do them. What Obama needs to decide is not what is politically expedient, what would make for the easiest confirmation process or what would quiet his conservative critics. What he needs to do, quite simply, is decide who is the best person for the job.

If he truly believes it’s Rice, then move ahead. If it’s someone else, don’t worry too much about how choosing another candidate will appear. Like all political brouhahas, this too shall pass. Having the wrong person in this important job won’t.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

Doris Kearns Goodwin on life, death and the presidency

Great leadership books in 2012

Grover Norquist has more to lose than Republican leaders do

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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