This story was co-published with The Washington Post.
At 55, Susan E. Rice has spent her career focused on policy, not politics. She served in diplomatic and national security posts instead of running for or holding elected office — and the latter, by the way, is something she doesn’t see as a requirement for the next vice president.
“I think what’s most important when it comes to governing is having a partner for the vice president that can get things done, that understands the executive branch, understands Congress, understands the budget, and has the wherewithal to help drive the hard work that’s going to need to be done to tackle the coronavirus, to jump-start the economy, to address the nation’s inequities in a fundamental and profound way,” Rice told The 19th in an interview. “We are also going to need leadership that can repair and rebuild and refresh our global leadership. All of those things have to happen simultaneously. This is a moment of extraordinary challenge.”
It is a description that does not sound unlike Rice, who was President Barack Obama’s national security adviser from 2013 to 2017, after four years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and now is being considered as a running mate for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Former colleagues describe her as a hard-charging boss who inspires fierce loyalty, a creative thinker who reframed what issues should be national security threats, and someone who knows how to navigate bureaucracy to drive and implement policy.
“She was frequently the most prepared in the room, [someone] you’d trust with the biggest and most hefty issues,” said Meridith Webster, who served as Rice’s deputy chief of staff, and first met Rice when she served in the State Department as assistant secretary for Africa during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
In 2014, as she juggled threats from the Islamic State and Russia, Rice also became the administration’s lead official tasked with addressing the deadly Ebola crisis that exploded in West Africa. The virus was deadlier than the novel coronavirus, but harder to transmit and less widespread.
Rice said the administration was able to limit the impact of Ebola in the United States because of policy driven by science and expertise, with leaders who were honest and competent — criteria she said is absent in the current administration’s response to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Former Obama administration deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who worked under Rice and has known her for more than a decade, called her a “totally distinct and singular” figure in government. He recalled her expanding the definition of “national security” to include the health threat.
“She’s consistently expanded the scope of things that she’s working on,” Rhodes said. “Susan was someone who was constantly trying to look ahead and anticipate what issues are going to merit attention from the U.S. government. She didn’t just exist in a foreign policy lane. Her sense of where things were headed led her to take on more and more issues.”
Rice was under consideration to be Obama’s secretary of state in 2012 but withdrew after criticism of her remarks on news shows after a terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, left four Americans dead. The administration’s handling of the attack sparked a number of Republican-led investigations, none of which found any deliberate wrongdoing.
Rice sees any “domestic divisions” — including the ongoing pandemic and confronting systemic racism in the institutions, laws and attitudes that disproportionately harm Black people — as a matter of national security.
“Our adversaries — and Russia’s the best example — have figured out that because these divisions exist, all they need to do is pour salt in our wounds, exacerbate those divisions, pit us against each other, and argue both sides of the issue,” Rice said. “We’ve got to heal them as a matter of national survival, as a matter of our democratic viability and as a matter of national security.”
Asked about whether she supports the removal of statues and symbols honoring Confederate figures or even the Founding Fathers, Rice said such symbolic gestures are a start but cannot be the extent of the work.
“I welcome every flag that is changed and taken down, and I’m happy to see statues retired to museums through rational processes,” Rice said. “I’m not a believer in canceling every Founding Father. I believe human beings are flawed and live in particular times. From my vantage point, despite the fact that they had ties to slavery, they played such a role in the establishment and the development of our country that we should be honoring them — that’s my personal view.”
But Rice added, ending there “is a moment and a movement wasted.”
“What we really need is to have leaders and policies that are designed in a fundamental way to redress the injustices and disparities that are so long-standing and entrenched,” Rice said.
She said she supports Biden’s plans for police reform and the proposed House legislation but said the “defund the police” movement has become a “lightning rod” with language that obscures its meaning. Rice said she was open to “a constructive reallocation of resources.”
“I can get behind the notion of reimagining how policing is done so police are not being asked to be social workers and do a bunch of things they’re not trained or equipped to do, but I don’t think we should have any sort of one-size-fits-all approach,” Rice said.
Rice has known Biden for more than two decades — longer than most of the other potential vice-presidential candidates — dating back to her time in the State Department as assistant secretary for African affairs. Biden was a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and became chair in 1997. What Rice lacks in political experience, supporters say, she makes up for in other ways.
Rice also notes that she has been on the campaign trail as a surrogate, stumping and raising money for three Democratic presidential candidates: Michael Dukakis, John F. Kerry and Barack Obama.
Republican strategist Susan Del Percio said Rice’s previous working relationship with Biden, coupled with foreign policy experience that could free him up to focus on domestic issues are plusses, but her lack of vetting on a national stage — a process former presidential candidates, for example, have undergone — is a potential negative.
A ticket with two former Obama administration officials could also be ammunition for President Trump to make the election a referendum — including on Benghazi.
“He could use her and say, ‘It’s Obama all over again,’ ” Del Percio said. “Unless there’s some testimony that can get leaked out that we don’t know about — because the president can declassify things, and he still may — given where we are, it will not be enough.”
Rice said the decision is ultimately Biden’s and that she stands ready to serve in whatever capacity she is called to this year — whether as a running mate, in the Cabinet or as a private citizen.
“My interest, in all candor, is that Joe Biden be elected president with a partner he thinks can help him win and govern,” she said. “If he thinks I’m the person to best help him do that, I would salute with pride and contribute in every way I can.”
She added: “This is not about me. I did not run for anything with my own personal ambitions. I have always been about serving our country, trying to do the best for our country. That’s my motivation.”