Susan Rice and John Kerry Will Battle For Obama’s Ear

John Kerry beat out Susan Rice for the secretary of state job they both wanted. But as national security adviser, Rice will effectively be Kerry’s boss, report Josh Rogin and Eli Lake.

Earlier this year, John Kerry seemed to prevail over Susan Rice when President Obama selected him to be secretary of State, a job they both coveted. On Wednesday, Rice regained the upper hand when she was appointed national security adviser, giving her a position that clearly outranks Kerry’s in the Obama power structure.

Now, in an administration where all foreign-policy decisionmaking flows through the White House and the president makes key decisions personally, Rice and Kerry will be the two senior officials jockeying for influence over the remaining three-and-a-half years of Obama’s second term.

They have different styles and different agendas, and Rice’s famously sharp elbows and tough management style may prove a difficult fit in a White House where the president values harmony and discourages open infighting. Nonetheless, the two have worked in the past for common policy goals pursued by President Obama, such as the targetting of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.

"Obama doesn't like drama and particularly not public fights among members of his team. Susan certainly knows that,” a former Obama administration official told The Daily Beast.

Rice replaces Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who rarely let the public glimpse his disagreements with senior officials. Rice, by contrast, has reportedly clashed with other administration officials, such as former Sudan Special Envoy Scott Gration.

“Even more so than Donilon … [Rice] has a temper that needs tempering,” Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote at The Daily Beast Wednesday. “And unlike Donilon, she often rushes to judgment, and then digs in. She’ll have to learn to count to one hundred—I mean one thousand—before making up her mind, and meantime, listen to different views carefully.”

Rice appeared to be Obama’s favorite for the secretary of State job, but her standing among Senate Republicans was badly damaged following her appearances on Sunday talk shows, when she read from flawed talking points that sought to frame the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi as a spontaneous event caused by reaction to an anti-Islam video. After trying hard to win over Senate Republicans, she withdrew herself from contention before a nomination was announced.

Kerry, though, has implicitly disputed the idea that he was a consolation pick, telling the Boston Globe that he was offered the job well before Rice decided to withdraw from consideration.

“He [the president] called me, actually a week before Susan got out of the thing,” Kerry said. “He called me and said, ‘You’re my choice. I want you to do this.’ He asked me to keep it quiet. I did. I sat on it.”

Now, Rice will be in a position to supervise Kerry. Although the secretary of State is a cabinet-level official and the national security adviser is just a White House staffer, in the Obama administration the latter job has carried more weight and arguably more influence.

“During the Bush years, Democrats came up with concepts like ‘smart power’ to harness all of the tools of American power—political, diplomatic, economic— and not just the military. A key element was to empower the State Department which was massively overshadowed by the Pentagon,” said Thomas Wright, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “For better or worse, the Obama administration has killed smart power. Its chosen concept is central power—the idea that everything flows to and from the National Security Council.”

Access to the president and the ability to influence him on major decisions is now key to influencing foreign policy in this administration. Donilon protected that access carefully, for example by never missing his chance to give Obama his daily briefing on national security.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The conventional wisdom is that Rice is closer to Obama, having been with him as his premier foreign policy adviser since the 2008 presidential campaign. She is also a close personal friend of both Michelle Obama and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. In this sense, Rice is the ultimate Obama-land insider, with a personal friendship with the president as her greatest bureaucratic asset. She worked hard to preserve her relationship with the president while serving as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for four years, spending more time in Washington than any of her predecessors.

“I know that after years of commuting to New York while Ian, Jake, and Maris stayed here in Washington, you will be the first person ever in this job who will see their family more by taking the National security adviser's job,” Obama joked today.

But the Kerry-Obama personal relationship dates back several years as well. It was Kerry who chose then-Illinois Senator Obama to deliver the keynote speech at his 2004 presidential convention, the speech that catapulted Obama to national prominence and attention for the first time. Kerry was also one of the first U.S. senators to endorse Obama during his primary fight with Hillary Clinton in 2008.

When Obama took office, he brought several former Kerry presidential campaign staffers in to fill key positions. Some of those staffers have moved back to Kerry’s team since their old boss took over at State in February. Heather Higginbottom was the Kerry 2004 campaign’s deputy policy director and then was his legislative director in the Senate before she moved over to work for Obama at the White House Office of Management and Budget. She returned to work for Kerry in April and is now his counselor at the State Department.

Kerry’s chief of staff David Wade was the traveling press secretary for Joe Biden after having worked years for Kerry. Jon Favreau, Obama's former speechwriter (and now a columnist for The Daily Beast) was Kerry's speechwriter during his 2004 presidential campaign. State Department spokeswomen Jen Psaki and Marie Harf are both former Obama campaign staffers who also have worked with Kerry in the past. Even Marvin Nicholson, Obama’s body man who replaced Reggie Love, was Kerry’s body man before he moved over the White House.

Since becoming secretary of State, Kerry has placed a lot of emphasis on working directly with Obama and the White House, rather than concentrating on harnessing the resources of the State Department, as did his predecessor Hillary Clinton. Aides say there’s constant contact and coordination between the buildings.

“The approach Kerry has clearly has taken is that he wants to work closely and hand in hand with the president,” one State Department insider said. “He feels that working closely is going to help him be able to do his job best.”

The working relationship was cemented when the two traveled together to the Middle East in March, during which the president would go out of his way to include Kerry in his daily routine, including middle of the night briefings for the president.

“They can work together on global issues, that there’s a decisionmaking process that weaves through them,” the insider said.

Rice and Kerry at times have worked closely together. But on some important policy areas they do not see eye to eye.

Kerry has spent his first months in Foggy Bottom working to repair the U.S.-Russia relationship and use that as a mechanism to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria. Kerry believes he has a close personal friendship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Rice, by contrast has traded public insults with her Russian counterpart at the U.N.

Regarding Syria specifically, administration officials and other close supporters of the White House say Rice in internal meetings has supported a no-fly zone for Syria. But the incoming national security adviser is also wary of arming the more liberal elements of Syria’s opposition.

“Susan is not for arming the rebels, but she leans in on the no fly zone,” said one outside adviser to the White House on foreign policy.

Kerry has voiced several views in recent years on arming the Syrian rebels, but recently he has indicated that Obama would lift his objections to sending such lethal aid to Syria’s opposition if Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, boycotts an upcoming peace conference in Geneva that Kerry has worked with the Russians to arrange.

“There will be some conflict at some point between Kerry, [Secretary of Defense Chuck] Hagel, and Rice. They all come from very different worldviews and different backgrounds,” this source said.

For Rice, who got her start during the Clinton administration and was seared by the world’s inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide, her worldview in some ways hews closely with liberal internationalism, or a belief that American power can be used to promote American values through multi-lateral institutions like the United Nations.

That said, other former officials who know Rice say she is hard to pin down ideologically. “There is no doubt that Rwanda shaped her views profoundly and seeing things go wrong in Iraq has shaped her views as well,” said Heather Hurlburt, who worked with Rice at the State Department during the Clinton administration and is now the executive director of the National Security Network. “Seeing the good we did and some of the bad that has come in Libya has also shaped her views and made them more complex.”

Despite the differences in style and worldview however, Rice and Kerry have joined forces under the Obama administration before.

John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project who worked on Africa issues with Rice during the Clinton administration, said Kerry and Rice worked closely on developing U.S. policy to support the referendum vote in Sudan that ended the north-south civil war as well as Obama’s decision to send special operations teams to Africa to counter the Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army.

“They are solutions-oriented people and they work often together on outcomes that advance U.S. interests,” Prendergast said. “Ambassador Rice is a pragmatist. Secretary Kerry is a pragmatist. They are not going to let alleged personal rivalries or alleged past grievances undermine their policy objectives.”