As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, all eyes turn to presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden as he mulls over his VP pick. While politicians like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Stacey Abrams have received steady attention, today I’m shining the spotlight on a less-discussed candidate: Susan Rice.
When Joe Biden pledged in March to pick a woman as his running mate, media attention turned to the pool of eligible candidates. While early predictions focused on previous presidential rivals such as Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the recent Black Lives Matters protests have also brought race to the front of the conversation, with politicians of color like Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, and Keisha Lance Bottoms gaining more attention. Among all these names, one figure has seemingly slipped under the radar: Susan Rice. While she has filled senior roles in multiple presidential administrations, Rice has never held elected office and is not a household name. So, who is Susan Rice?
Background: From DC Native to International Negotiator
Susan Rice grew up in the nation’s capital, raised by two members of the Washington DC elite in the 1960s. Her father, Emmett Rice, was an economics professor at Cornell University and became only the second black governor of the Federal Reserve; her mother, Lois Rice, was an education policy researcher who helped design the Pell Grant. After attending National Cathedral School, a DC-based private school, Susan Rice went on to Stanford University, where she earned a BA in history and became both a Truman and Rhodes scholar. As a student, Rice drew attention for her anti-apartheid activism and research in African international relations. After earning her master’s and doctorates from Oxford University, she moved to Canada.
Rice gained some of her first political experience during the 1988 presidential election, when she worked as a foreign policy aide for Michael Dukakis’ campaign. In 1992, President Bill Clinton chose her for his National Security Council, opening the door to Rice’s first position in a presidential administration. During the Clinton years, Rice went on to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and formed a strong mentoring relationship with then-Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. While many critics highlighted Rice’s relative youth and inexperience, Rice soon gained a reputation for plain-spoken and firm negotiation skills when meeting with various heads of state. During her tenure as Assistant Secretary of State, Rice oversaw peace efforts in the Eritrean-Ethiopian War as well as responses to the terrorist bombings of the Tanzanian and Kenyan embassies.
After the Clinton administration, Rice became a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institute and investigated foreign policy issues. In 2008, she left the Brookings Institute to become a senior foreign policy advisor to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Upon his election, President Obama nominated Rice as the US ambassador to the UN, making her the first African American woman to hold this position. As UN ambassador, Rice imposed sanctions on Iran and North Korea and championed an interventionist, human rights agenda. For a while, she was on a shortlist to replace Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State, but after facing controversy for her role in the 2012 Benghazi incident, Rice withdrew her name from consideration. In 2013, President Obama appointed her as his National Security Advisor, a role in which Rice continued to exercise her foreign affairs chops in response to emerging international issues, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.
Vice President Rice?
Proponents of Susan Rice as Biden’s VP pick have pointed to her foreign policy experience as a significant asset. In an interview with The Atlantic, Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a major Biden ally, said, “we have a lot to do in this country, not to just restore the confidence in the American people, but we’ve got to restore confidence around the world.” Clyburn added, “I don’t know that there’s another African American woman in the country, or any woman other than maybe Hillary Clinton, who has the stripes that [Rice] has on foreign policy.”
On top of Rice’s foreign policy and executive branch experience, insiders have highlighted that she already knows Biden well from having worked alongside him during all eight years of the Obama administration. As Biden himself told CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell, “It’s really important that whomever you pick as a vice president agrees with you in terms of your philosophy of government and agrees with you on the systemic things that you want to change.” With their prior track record of working well together, one can easily envision Biden and Rice as harmonious running mates.
Some critics point out that Biden already carries his own extensive foreign policy experience as a longtime member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on top of his international activities as vice president. But as the American government confronts many complex, global issues, such as relations with China or Iran, others argue that having a running mate who can hit the ground running on these issues could provide a crucial benefit to Biden’s team. Compared to other leading VP contenders, whose experience lies largely in domestic policy or law enforcement, Rice carries a swath of valuable foreign affairs insight.
On the other hand, since Rice has never run for political office, some have questioned her domestic policy experience or campaign qualifications. But to these remarks, Rice has often emphasized her experience as an advisor on multiple presidential campaigns, including Dukakis ‘88, John Kerry ‘04, and Barack Obama ‘08. On a recent segment of NBC’s Meet the Press, Rice stated, “I’ve worked on multiple campaigns, presidential campaigns. I’ve been on the campaign trail as a surrogate…” She then added, “I’m going to do everything I can to help get Joe Biden elected and to help him succeed as president, whether I’m his running mate or I’m a door knocker.”
Political Controversies, Debunked
One main concern about a Susan Rice VP candidacy stems from her involvement in the response to the 2012 attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Rice received heavy blowback after appearing on several morning news talk shows shortly after the attacks and speaking from CIA talking points that were later proven to be inaccurate. While controversy around her appearances led Rice to remove her name from consideration for Secretary of State, House Intelligence Committee investigations later blamed intelligence analysts for the faulty reports and failed to conclude that “Rice or any other government official acted in bad faith or intentionally misled the American people.”
In 2017, President Trump also targeted Rice for her requests to unmask the identities of his aides whose names had appeared in foreign intelligence reports. While Trump and other sources attempted to frame Obama-era officials for meddling in the Trump administration, after further investigations, several Democratic and Republican members of Congress, as well as Susan Rice’s National Security Advisor successor, found that Rice had done nothing wrong with her unmasking request.
Choosing a Running Mate
In the end, it’s up to Joe Biden and his campaign to pick whoever he thinks will be the best woman for the job. So far Biden has indicated that he will announce his VP pick by August 1, although there is a chance his reveal will arrive closer to the Democratic Convention, scheduled virtually for August 17. Until then, we can only speculate which of the many talented women will land this top role. In a crowded pool of contenders, it’s worth highlighting Susan Rice as a figure to look out for.