In the Oval Office many mornings, as Joe Biden sat in a chair next to President Barack Obama, Susan E. Rice would take her usual spot on a nearby couch and brief them on sensitive national security issues. At other times in the Situation Room, Rice and Biden would sit directly across the table from one another, according to people with knowledge of the setup.
As vice president, Biden would pop into Rice’s neighboring office in the White House for some light banter with the national security adviser — or heavier talk about the difficult issues confronting the Obama administration.
Years later, that relationship has made Rice an unlikely finalist to become Biden’s running mate and the first African American woman on a major party ticket, according to people with knowledge of the process and other Biden allies. She has never been elected to political office but has a credential none of her rivals can boast: a lengthy history as Biden’s colleague at the highest levels of government.
“Biden spent years essentially beginning his day with a briefing from Susan Rice,” said former Obama deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “So he definitely knows her.”
Biden has frequently said he is looking for a running mate with whom he is “simpatico” and that he aspires to re-create the dynamic he shared with Obama, to whom he was a friend and adviser. That could cut both ways for Rice, who disagreed with Biden on some key foreign policy issues during Obama’s first term, when she served as U.N. ambassador, but also forged a kinship with him, particularly once she moved to the White House in 2013, according to colleagues.
Rice has been a frequent guest on television news shows in recent months, impressing Biden allies who were unsure how she would fare under heightened public scrutiny. To broaden her public persona beyond the foreign policy issues that have dominated her career, Rice has written op-eds on issues such as voting rights, racial justice, D.C. statehood and the Trump administration's performance in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
She has eschewed the traditional strategy of demurring when asked about the vice presidential nomination, confidently stating in a recent interview on NBC’s “Meet The Press” that Biden “needs to make the decision as to who he thinks will be his best running mate, and I will do my utmost, drawing on my experience of years in government.”
Rice is seen by some Biden allies as an underdog to be his running mate, but even many of them say they envision her playing some influential role in a Biden administration — perhaps as secretary of state or in some other senior position.
“I’ve observed them together in countless meetings. There was clear mutual respect and rapport,” said Valerie Jarrett, a former senior Obama adviser, speaking of Rice and Biden. “She would be a terrific addition to his administration and could fulfill many different roles.”
To many Democrats, Biden’s unique vice presidential search has doubled as a public audition for his administration, casting a spotlight on a small group of Democratic women already being talked up for alternative roles if they don’t end up on the ticket.
The search has been a remarkably open process akin to a mini-campaign, in which some candidates have publicly promoted themselves and others have bowed out of the running — all as Biden has provided a steady trickle of clues about who he is considering, starting with his declaration that he will choose a woman.
Rice, 55, would not be a typical pick. Not only has she never been elected — she has never run for office. Her son has voiced strong public support for President Trump. And she has faced criticism for her initial comments on the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, for which Republicans made her a leading target of a vitriolic and long-running investigation they are eager to reprise. Once well-positioned to be Obama’s second secretary of state, Rice withdrew from consideration after the uproar over her remarks.
“Biden is opening the door and placing Benghazi on the kitchen table if he picks Susan E. Rice,” said Dan Eberhart, an oil industry executive and GOP donor. “Expect Republicans to feast.”
While some of these factors have given Democrats pause, Rice has credentials that could prove timely — most notably her national security experience and battling, with Biden, an Ebola crisis in Africa.
Still, while Biden has said his pick does not have to agree with him on everything so long as they share “the same basic approach,” Rice was at odds with him on some early issues. When the administration debated whether to support then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as his autocratic government battled protesters at the beginning of the Arab Spring, then-U.N. Ambassador Rice and others argued that the United States should support the youthful forces of democracy. Biden was part of a group who had known Mubarak for years — that wanted to stick with the Egyptian president.
A similar division occurred when the administration debated in 2011 whether to use force to protect Libyan civilians from the dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Rice’s side eventually won both battles, although in neither case did the policy bring peace and democracy to North Africa.
Rice, who has a reputation for being hardheaded, “doesn’t respect everybody. You kind of have to earn it with her,” said one senior Obama official who worked closely with both of them and, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “She really did respect him. With things like Afghanistan, many felt like he kind of had it right for a while, and she gave him a lot of credit.”
Rhodes said “there were times she could butt heads with somebody, including in the West Wing,” and she was “like the member of your team that you know is going to practice harder than anybody but have your back in the game.”
By Obama’s second term, Biden and Rice, both more outspoken than the reserved and intellectual 44th president, had formed a noticeable bond. As Rice became Obama’s national security adviser, their relationship was strengthened by close coordination on high-level issues and shared personal suffering.
They traveled in the same direction from the Oval Office to their offices in the northwest corner of the White House, which shared a cubbyhole bathroom. Rice usually left her office door open, and Biden liked to drop in unannounced. They would joke or talk about topics ranging from family to foreign policy, according to people with knowledge of the exchanges.
Rhodes recalled Rice ending her days meeting in her office with some staff, and “those sessions would usually evolve into wine drinking and blowing off steam.” Biden would swing by some of these gatherings, “and you kind of got the sense he could get the gossip,” Rhodes added.
When Obama assigned Biden to work on major issues, such as Ukraine, he essentially “looked to Biden and Rice to divide up the labor,” and they closely coordinated, said another senior Obama official. While Biden dealt with internal politics and an anti-corruption push inside Ukraine, Rice focused on building European support for sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine and efforts for an international settlement.
Rice was among those to whom Biden turned for consolation after the death of his son Beau in the spring of 2015, and again later that year when he reluctantly decided not to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Biden returned the favor in 2017, following the death of her mother.
One of Rice’s personal challenges has been the politics of the eldest of her two children, John Rice-Cameron, who diverged from his mother’s liberalism to become a staunch and very public conservative. A 2020 graduate of Stanford, Rice’s alma mater, Jake, as he is known, served for two years as president of the Stanford College Republicans.
As “Stanford’s number one politico,” according to a 2018 cover story in the school’s political newsmagazine, he made news that year by filing a police report alleging a student protester had shoved him as he led a rally supporting Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. The charges eventually were dropped.
In her recent book, titled “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For,” Rice wrote of their “sometimes profane” arguments over issues from the Iran nuclear deal to abortion and the Affordable Care Act. But “even when most frustrated, I’m proud that Jake cares deeply about public issues and is an effective leader. It takes guts to get in the arena,” she wrote.
“Still, I confess it can be deeply painful to love someone so powerfully with whom I disagree so profoundly.” The two have said they remain close.
Several top Democrats dismissed Republicans’ ability to damage her with the Benghazi episode, which Rice, adhering to early intelligence community guidance, initially characterized as a spontaneous response to an inflammatory anti-Muslim video rather than an attack. “That was then and this is now,” said former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid. “I think it has about as much traction as an ice-skating rink.”
Republicans also could be expected to go after Rice, were she selected, for what they allege was misconduct in the Russia election interference investigation begun under the Obama administration. A report commissioned by Attorney General William P. Barr on the matter is expected to be made public later this summer or in the fall.
Biden’s professional relationship with Rice precedes the Obama administration. Nominated by Bill Clinton as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in 1997, Rice appeared at her Senate confirmation hearing with 6-week-old Jake, who slept through the proceedings. The start of the hearing, Rice related in her book, was delayed by the late arrival of Biden, then the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden apologized for his tardy Amtrak train from Delaware and effusively praised Rice, then 33, “stressing that he had no reservations whatsoever about my comparatively tender age,” she wrote. A Rhodes Scholar, with a doctorate in international relations, she had already served four years on Clinton’s National Security Council staff.
In typical Biden fashion, he immediately noted the presence of her infant and “recalled at length how he began in the Senate at 29 years old as the single father of two boys, cheerfully recounting how he had done just fine,” she wrote.
His remarks put her at ease, and Biden’s loquaciousness helped run out the clock and limit the rest of the questions. Rice was unanimously approved.
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