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‘It's absolutely serious’: Susan Rice vaults to the top of the VP heap

They describe Rice as a highly able government operator, the type who can hold the reins on foreign policy as a President Biden tackles the consuming domestic crises of a pandemic and a cratered economy. Having a Republican son speaks to her open-mindedness, these supporters say, further arguing that Benghazi is a spent issue that isn’t likely to swing any votes.

Perhaps most important? Rice has a longstanding — and by all accounts warm — relationship with Biden.

“He has seen her not just in good times but on really hard and challenging occasions,” said Valerie Jarrett, who served as a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama. Jarrett stressed that she’s not endorsing any particular candidate over others, but also said of Rice: “There is a level and depth to her experience which would be a real asset.”

The Biden campaign won’t comment on his potential running mates. But after word leaked that Rice is being vetted, buzz about the possibility has grown, spawning columns with titles like “The Case for Susan Rice.”

The chatter is loud enough that allies of others being eyed for the vice presidency are increasingly worried about Rice, especially because of her close ties to Biden, who, as Obama’s No. 2, had an office just steps away from hers.

Privately, some in California Sen. Kamala Harris’ world have indicated that Rice could be Harris’ most formidable rival for the vice presidential slot. Harris is widely considered the candidate with the best shot at being Biden’s running mate — she went through the press wringer when she ran against him in the primary and has decent name recognition. Like Rice, she would represent the first Black woman on a major-party presidential ticket.

No one rules it out, but there’s less speculation that Rice would run for the Oval Office the way Harris almost certainly would post-Biden. That might give Rice an edge in the veepstakes, especially if Biden — who has hinted he may serve one term — doesn’t want to deal with the distraction of a governing partner eyeing his job.

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Still, Rice would be an unorthodox pick. It’s not entirely certain who first suggested her as a potential vice president, although Jim Clyburn, the powerful congressman whose endorsement help deliver South Carolina for Biden, praised Rice and noted in a brief interview that he has promoted her as one of several options. Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a Biden campaign co-chair, confirmed that Rice is being vetted and said her consideration as a possible running mate is “absolutely serious.”

Rice has drawn extra attention, too, over the past several months because she released a memoir – the last pages of which come across more like a political call to action than an insider account of Obama’s foreign policy. She’s kept her name in the news with regular television hits and columns in The New York Times, sometimes tackling topics beyond national security, including race relations.

People close to Rice say she did not put herself forward but would be proud to serve if asked. “One of the things she’s most passionate about is public service,” said Gayle Smith, a longtime friend and colleague of Rice’s who led the U.S. Agency for International Development under Obama.

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Several of the people who spoke to POLITICO worked directly with Rice during her time in the Obama administration, when she served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser.
Some confessed that they had serious policy differences with her, especially on issues related to Africa, but said that, overall, they respected her. Most spoke of her in glowing terms, even ones who at first were taken aback by her tough standards and liberal use of curse words.

“In the beginning, I thought ‘Who is this crazy person?’ But by the end, I just developed one of the most profound senses of respect I’ve had for anyone in government,” one former National Security Council staffer said. “She got things done. She’s one of the most effective bureaucratic operators I’ve ever seen in government.”

Rice, 55, was the type of boss who valued differing opinions and constantly challenged her aides to pressure-test their arguments, former colleagues said. But they also praised her for deferring to her topic-expert staffers in meetings. She’s also fiercely loyal to and protective of the people who work for her, they said.

Meridith Webster described how, in 2009, after learning her mother had Stage 4 lung cancer, she kept going to work as Rice’s deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, even as she felt “sad and helpless.” Then one day, Rice walked into Webster’s office, shut the door, and told her she needed to go be with her mother.

“She said, ‘Take as much time as you want. When you come back, your job is here. If you don’t go now, you will regret this for the rest of your life,” recalled Webster, who took a leave of absence. “If she hadn’t told me to do that, I don’t think I would have known to do it. It allowed me to have the end with my mother. It ended in a way that I have closure. Because of Susan, I don’t have regrets about this horrible time.”

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In her book, titled “Tough Love,” Rice makes relatively few mentions of Biden, but when she does describe him it’s in friendly terms. She mentions how, in the 1990s, then-Senator Biden spoke in her favor as the Senate considered, and eventually confirmed, her for the role of assistant secretary of State for African affairs.

“My favorite unannounced visitor was Joe Biden, whose office was just down the hall,” Rice wrote of her later years in the White House. “He came to check on how we were doing, buck us up, tell a joke, shoot the breeze, or deliver a Bidenism — a family aphorism that never lost its value.”

“In rare instances,” she added, “the vice president surprised me by baring his soul, sharing his agony over his son Beau’s cancer and later his tragic passing. Even when in pain, Joe Biden was warm and generous, always leaving me feeling better than when he walked in.”

Rice briefed Biden and Obama on national security issues on a regular basis. “Biden obviously had his own national security staff, but she spent as much time with him as just about anyone not directly on his staff,” a second former NSC official said.

Biden and Rice did not always on agree on policy. As the Arab Spring revolutions rocked the Middle East in 2011, Biden urged Obama not to abandon Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, a man he’d long known. Rice sided with the protesters who wanted Mubarak gone. Her side won that argument.

Rice, who was Obama’s U.N. ambassador at the time, favored U.S. intervention in Libya to stop dictator Moammar Gadhafi from wiping out the residents of the city of Benghazi, a rebel stronghold. Rice, who had been an NSC staffer when the Rwandan genocide occurred, was determined to prevent another mass atrocity. But Biden and others argued against intervention, saying the U.S. had no compelling national security interests in Libya.

The eventual U.S.-led intervention may have prevented mass killings in Benghazi. But it quickly morphed into a broader battle against Gadhafi, who ultimately was overthrown and killed. Libya today is a broken, violent country of competing militias with several foreign powers stoking the conflict.

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