Susan E. Rice is almost universally described as tough. By her many friends, by her considerable critics, by anyone who ever competed against or alongside her on the basketball court.
President Obama’s choice to be his next national security adviser will need toughness to handle the grueling hours and strain of being his chief counselor on war, terrorism and foreign affairs. But she won’t have to do the one thing that no amount of toughness could probably help her accomplish — win confirmation from the Senate.
The White House job, which requires no Senate approval, was long seen as the backup plan for Rice, an Obama loyalist who, fairly or unfairly, became the administration figure most closely associated with the deaths of four Americans last year in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice’s erroneous televised claim that the Americans died as a result of a spontaneous protest that turned violent, instead of a planned terrorist assault, was enough to ensure that she could not win swift confirmation as secretary of state, if she could win it at all.
Faced with the certainty of a long Republican blockade, Rice withdrew her name from consideration for the Cabinet post, making way for John F. Kerry.
Former congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a close friend of Rice’s, said it was a formative experience for the longtime diplomat.
“What she showed, and I know something about this, is that she could take a punch — a public punch,” Harman said. “It made her stronger personally, and it made her stronger politically.”
Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), who accused Rice of being part of a coverup after the Benghazi incident and were among her fiercest critics, said Wednesday that they would work with her but made clear that they have not buried their anger over the attack. McCain said in a Twitter message that he disagreed with Obama’s decision to appoint her, while Ayotte accused Rice of a “disservice to the nation.”
Both lawmakers are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and McCain is a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Rice will need to work closely with both panels — a behind-the-scenes skill that Thomas E. Donilon, the outgoing national security adviser, was said to have perfected.
Rice is in many ways Donilon’s opposite. She is blunt and sometimes abrasive where Donilon is Washington-lobbyist smooth, associates say. She is at heart an advocate, sometimes for unpopular causes, and is unafraid to take risks. Donilon is more cautious and most comfortable away from the spotlight.
Colleagues say the two share a reputation for exacting standards, particularly for themselves, and for being well-prepared.
The national security adviser is almost always the person who presents the president’s classified daily briefing on national security issues. The job also requires managing the National Security Council, a staff of in-house experts whose duties have expanded steadily throughout the Obama presidency.
The post will be a homecoming for Rice, who grew up in Washington and attended the National Cathedral School. Her husband and children have remained in Washington while she has commuted to New York for her job as U.N. ambassador.
In that role, Rice raised her hand to be the administration’s spokesperson on Benghazi days after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Obama and his aides have repeatedly defended Rice on Benghazi, saying she was only providing the best snapshot that she could at the time.
Rice was a foreign policy adviser to Obama during his long-shot 2008 presidential run against Hillary Rodham Clinton and is a family friend.
“I think everybody understands Susan is a fierce champion for justice and human dignity, but she’s also mindful that we have to exercise our power wisely and deliberately,” Obama said Wednesday.
With the 48-year-old former point guard standing by, Obama joked that he sometimes plays basketball with Rice’s brother. Both are known to throw an elbow, he remarked. “It runs in the family.”