Her links to Obama are not like other longtime advisers, many of whom emerged from Chicago politics. Obama was first introduced to Rice during his 2004 Senate campaign through Anthony Lake, who was President Clinton’s first national security adviser and knew both. When Obama arrived in the Senate a year, Lake organized a meeting of Democratic foreign policy wonks that included Rice, who was then working at the Brookings Institute.
In late 2006, Rice was one of a group of foreign policy advisers, along with Lake, who were consulted about Obama potentially running for president. Her decision to back Obama, instead of Hillary Clinton, was not totally shocking, as Rice would have a much greater chance of playing a major role in developing Obama’s policies than Hillary Clinton, who had a large existing team of aides from her husband’s tenure. At the same time, though, the decision was a risk, as she was opting against signing up early with the favorite, and limiting her role in a potential third Clinton term.
Rice emerged as one of key players on Obama’s campaign. Clinton argued Obama was too green, particularly on foreign policy, a charge Rice rejected in at times surprisingly blunt ways, repeatedly questioning if Clinton’s trips abroad as First Lady constituted foreign policy experience. Rice was on Obama’s 2008 campaign trip to Europe, in which he was greeted by huge, adoring crowds and a key surrogate on television and the campaign trail.
Rice was passed over for one of these top national security posts in 2008, as Obama opted for two bigger names that would carry more stature in his first years: Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and James Jones, the former top commander of U.S. forces in Europe, as National Security Adviser. The UN Ambassador works from New York and leads a staff of 150, compared to the Secretary of State, who runs a team of thousands and is less than two miles from the White House.
But the job was not a bad consolation prize. Rice, as a member of the Cabinet and the National Security Council, literally has a voice in the meetings in which Clinton, Obama and other top officials debate foreign policy decisions. And she has a team of aides who attend the inter-agency sessions that hugely influence the eventual policy results.
And one of the chief goals of Obama’s foreign policy was to strike a clear line between his tenure and President Bush’s by showing America could work with other countries, making the UN role even more pivotal.
The administration has not had the kind of divide on foreign policy of the Bush years, so Rice”s influence is hard to discern on many decisions because her views are shared by Clinton and others. But Libya may be the most important context in which to view Rice. Administration officials say the decision to intervene there last year and the policy was determined largely by Obama. But Rice was one of the most vocal in the National Security Council meetings pushing for a U.S. role there, while other aides, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, argued the mission was not sufficiently related to U.S. national security interests.
Rice’s tenure is not without blemishes. Her comments about what happened in Benghazi earlier this year, while similar to statements by other administration officials at the time, created a misleading impression about what initially happened there. Human rights advocates, as reported by the New York Times, argue she has too closely supported African dictators.
But her ascension would have fit the Obama pattern. He has gradually replaced officials picked in part for their stature and reputation in Washington with people who have sufficient experience, but also more closely share his vision and style. Rice, a basketball-loving policy wonk with two-school aged children, seemed an ideal fit.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr