CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Michele Flournoy.
President Obama is “genuinely conflicted” about whether to nominate his favored candidate, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, or Sen. John Kerry as his next secretary of State, two aides said. Rice faces stiff resistance from some Republican senators — as well as grumbling among some foreign-policy elites who question her suitability — yet the GOP objections may backfire, making the president even more likely to nominate her so as not to be seen as backing down.
White House officials say only the president knows at this point whom he will choose to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has indicated she will depart before the second term begins. Obama, who told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday that he has not yet made his decision, may be putting it off so as not to disrupt the critical negotiations currently underway over avoiding the year-end “fiscal cliff.”
Despite harsh criticism of Rice from Republicans, Obama is leaning hard toward her because she’s been one of his closest advisers since 2007, and “she and the president are on exactly the same page on all foreign-policy issues,” said an Obama team official who is privy to the transition discussions. “She represents Obama’s foreign policy in a way that Kerry doesn’t, in other words a new way of being a Democrat on foreign policy.” It was a reference to Obama’s carefully cultivated self-image as a tough commander in chief willing to apply diplomatic leverage to get what he wants and use power aggressively, especially covertly.
In addition, Obama is developing an ambitious foreign-policy agenda for the second term, including nuclear nonproliferation, and “it would be clear to foreign leaders that when Susan Rice is speaking she’s speaking for the president,” the official said. At the same time “he really respects John Kerry, who did an amazing job on debate prep. He respects Sen. Kerry as a leading figure in our party,” said this official, who like others spoke only on condition of anonymity about transition deliberations. Both this official and a senior administration official used the same words in describing the president as “genuinely conflicted” over the choice, which could come as early as next week.
Part of the issue with Rice is not just what has dominated the headlines recently: her controversial statements on one day of Sunday talk shows in September about the extremist attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11. Some Republican senators — such as Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is slated to take over as ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will sit in judgment on the nomination, and the moderate Susan Collins of Maine — have raised questions about whether she is too “political” in her loyalties to Obama.
The doubts about Rice are not exclusively partisan. A longtime foreign-policy expert who has worked for Democratic administrations, and who has dealt with Rice personally, also raised questions about whether she is temperamentally suited for the job, saying she doesn’t brook disagreement well. He said that Rice lacked the authority for the job.
Still, the president is described as personally offended by unfair attacks on Rice over a series of talking points about Benghazi that the intelligence community has taken responsibility for providing to her, and which she merely repeated on TV. On Tuesday, news outlets began noting a Sept. 22 Senate resolution signed by the leading critics of Rice—GOP senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Kelly Ayotte—which said that the U.S. facility in Benghazi was "swarmed by an angry mob of protesters on September 11, 2012." These same senators now claim that Rice was dishonest in saying effectively the same thing on Sept. 16, though the intelligence community admits that it got that original assessment wrong, that there were no protests in Benghazi and that Stevens and the others were killed in a terrorist attack. "In living memory, no nominee for secretary of State has ever been subjected to such a bizarre and politicized assault,” a former administration official said.
The decision over other top posts, including Defense secretary, is not believed to be nearly as close at hand. Partly that is because current Pentagon chief Leon Panetta may stay on longer than Clinton in his job. The leading candidates to replace Panetta are said to be Kerry, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel — like Obama a vociferous critic of the decision to go to war with Iraq — and former Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy, who emerged as the administration’s key national security spokesperson during the election campaign.
Kerry has remained studiously discreet about his own ambitions, but it’s no secret that he has long coveted the job at State, having acted largely as an advocate for the administration’s policies over the past four years as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. But giving Kerry that post — or the Pentagon one — also means opening up a Senate seat in Massachusetts. That would prompt a special election that could allow newly defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown to recapture his job in 2013, a risk Democrats may prefer not to take given they have a slew of other vulnerable seats on the line in 2014.
Still, Kerry is clearly being seriously considered. At the Democratic convention in early September, it was the Massachusetts senator, a Vietnam war hero, who was chosen to deliver a speech arguing that Obama has restored America’s leadership in the world.