At a press conference Wednesday, Obama rebuked two Republican senators for threatening to block Rice's possible nomination to be the top U.S. diplomat because of her televised comments about the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice has done "exemplary work" and represented the U.S. "with skill and professionalism and toughness and grace" and "to besmirch her reputation is outrageous," Obama told reporters in his first news conference since his re-election. If he decides Rice is the best candidate for secretary of state, Obama said, "then I will nominate her."
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, administration officials said Obama's unusually blunt language was part political calculation, part trial balloon and part loyalty.
Rice has shown her willingness to carry out the president's foreign policy faithfully and stay on message at the UN, and if she is named to head the State Department, it will in part be a reward for that, said two officials.
Obama, anticipating the expected departures of Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the unexpected exit of CIA director David Petraeus, also may be "testing the waters" to see how far Republicans will go to block a candidate he is seriously considering, said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman who directs the Center on Congress at Indiana University in Bloomington.
In addition, said Democratic Party strategist Joe Trippi, Obama's ultimatum to Republicans may reflect confidence he could garner the 60 Senate votes necessary to move Rice to a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate -- as well as a political calculation that Republicans are further marginalizing themselves by targeting her.
"If it starts to look like this is just another attempt to obstruct instead of, 'Look, we're one country. We can at least let the president have his nominees,' I think it really makes them look like they still want to fight -- and people are sick of the fighting," Trippi said.
Another factor, said two administration officials, is that nominating the other oft-mentioned candidate for the State Department post, Mass. Sen. John Kerry, could cost Democrats one of the two Senate seats they picked up last week and make newly elected Elizabeth Warren, considered by some a polarizing figure, the state's senior senator.
Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said they would seek to block a Rice nomination because of her remarks that the assault in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans had begun as a spontaneous protest against an anti- Muslim video and then was "hijacked" by militants.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the administration's handling of the Benghazi attack, committee chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, said Thursday.
The White House enlisted Rice to appear on the Sept. 16 Sunday morning talk shows after Clinton said she was exhausted, then provided her with talking points based on intelligence reports, according to two administration officials. Rice, who dislikes interviews, consented, and members of the White House national security staff congratulated her afterward on her performance, the officials said.
Her comments were based on "an intelligence community assessment, and she said before she started that it was a preliminary assessment," Richard A. Clarke, who was Rice's boss and later her colleague on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, said in an interview Thursday.
"For McCain and Graham to attack her when they know" she wasn't responsible for security in Benghazi and that she was given talking points by the Central Intelligence Agency "is despicable," said Clarke, who also served in the George W. Bush administration and is now chairman of Good Harbor Consulting in Arlington, Va.
When Rice was confronted with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania while she was assistant secretary of state for Africa, she took over the State Department crisis-management operations center, Clarke said. She was responsible for sending in Marines, closing down other U.S. embassies in Africa and mobilizing aircraft to ferry out the injured, he added.
"When she actually has responsibility for security, she does a spectacular job," Clarke said.
At the UN, Rice is known for her passionate advocacy and strong personality, which have earned her admiration as well as some resentment. Critics, including some senior diplomats from other nations on the UN Security Council, complain that she has an authoritarian and abrasive style.
Rice and Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin have clashed, and last year he publicly chided her for one outburst and said their disagreement over Syria wasn't an issue that could be drowned by expletives.
Rice's defenders say she is an ardent advocate for American interests who doesn't mince words or suffer fools gladly.
"By any definition, she's had an extremely successful record at the United Nations," Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in an interview. "She is a forceful advocate for the UN, but one who knows how to use diplomacy and I think that her record speaks for her methods."
It's impossible not to ruffle feathers while promoting U.S. foreign policy at the UN -- sometimes in the face of resistance from Russia, China or other nations -- said Rice's supporters, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who also served as UN ambassador under President Clinton.
"You sit there behind a sign that says the 'United States,' and your job is to pursue American national interests. That's what the job is," and naturally, not every nation is going to agree, Albright said in a telephone interview last night.
Supporters credit her with three major accomplishments at the UN: helping win a consensus for the toughest multilateral sanctions to date over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program; increasing pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs; and winning consent for international support for rebels who rose up against longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
"When she has a strong view, it doesn't matter if every single person in the room has a different opinion, or is higher up in the hierarchy," said Tony Blinken, national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, in an interview. "She says what she believes, she says it forcefully and more often than not, persuasively."