For all the talk of tax increases and debt-cutting, President Obama's biggest and most- revealing decision this year may be which candidate he chooses to be his new secretary of state. It will tell us whether the president allows comfort to trump qualification.
The two candidates are Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both would be impressive, though they bring different strengths.
Rice's advantage is that she has a closer personal relationship with the president, making her better integrated in the administration's policy-making apparatus. Kerry's edge is that he's a heavyweight who would be more effective representing the U.S. around the world.
Rice has the inside track for now, and she got an unintentional boost last week from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was shooting from the hip, as usual. McCain, who is Kerry's old friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, hounded Rice mercilessly over the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya. Her only sin was that on the Sunday shows in September she conveyed exactly what she was told by the Central Intelligence Agency about the attack on the U.S. consulate.
Just before his first post-election news conference, the president heard that McCain and his Sancho Panza, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., were threatening to block Rice's nomination with a filibuster. This made the president angrier than he has been in months, according to a senior White House official I spoke with. "For them to go after" Rice and "besmirch her reputation, is outrageous," Obama said at the news conference.
Obama says he hasn't made a decision. But rejecting Rice in favor of Kerry would make the president look as if he's buckling to pressure from McCain, the Republican opponent he defeated in the 2008 election. And yet, if how something looks is the issue - and appearances are critical in diplomacy - then Obama should choose Kerry.
Kerry, a prominent senator for 28 years, would sail through his Senate confirmation hearings. Rice would be pinned down not just by Benghazi but by some of her past statements, in particular these two: In 1994, when she served on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, she reportedly asked about the possibility of intervening in Rwanda: "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?" In 2011, as European countries were pushing for a UN Security Council resolution creating a no-fly zone over Libya, she reportedly told the France's UN ambassador, Gerard Araud, that the U.S. wouldn't be pulled into France's war and she disparaged the conflict with an obscenity. Dredging up the latter incident is especially unfair, considering that Rice joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the National Security Council official Samantha Power to push the men in the administration to intervene in Libya. Still, Kerry's colleagues wouldn't hesitate to use any ammunition on hand against Rice.
Kerry would be much-better received than Rice not just in the Senate but in the rest of the world, which should be more than a little relevant in this decision. After 27 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he knows every player of consequence. His on-the-job training would be minimal.
Lest we forget, Obama probably wouldn't be president without Kerry, who asked him to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that started his career.
In 2008, Kerry gave then-Sen. Obama critical early support in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. When Obama picked Clinton over him as secretary of state, Kerry was a loyal soldier. He helped persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hold elections, smoothed over tense relations with Pakistan and shepherded the Start treaty through the Senate. He even played Mitt Romney in the mock debates this year.
Gratitude, loyalty and experience shouldn't be the only factors in the president's decision, but don't they count for something? If Kerry giving up his Senate seat jeopardized Democratic control of the Senate, the appointment would be too risky. But Democrats in the new Congress will have a five-vote margin in the upper chamber, and it's unlikely a Republican could win a special election next year in Massachusetts.
This decision isn't as much about Rice and Kerry and the political angles as it is about Obama and how he views governing.
We know that the president is often leery of having other big fish in his administration, less because of ego or insecurity than his insistence on harmonious policy making, free of turf fights. But comfort is overrated; Obama needs more "principals" (officials with their own power bases) to challenge him.
Before the UN, Rice's experience consisted of being assistant secretary of state for Africa, which is important but not central to U.S. foreign policy. More recently, she won credit for helping to convince Russia and China to back sanctions against Iran and not oppose the bombing campaign against Libya. Yet when Russia and China vetoed a resolution aimed at Syria, Rice called the action "disgusting" and "shameful," which was stronger than the White House's "regrettable." Diplomacy is all about word choice.
Having accompanied Hillary Clinton on international trips, I can testify to how helpful it is to have a woman in charge of public diplomacy. Most of the positive things going on among nongovernmental organizations are spearheaded by women, who would like seeing the third woman in a row (and second African- American by the name of Rice) in the top job.
Still, the next secretary of state may be called on to broker Mideast peace talks between Israel and Hamas or conduct high-stakes talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Wouldn't it be better to have someone at the table with wide experience and the political clout to make things happen? In 2008, Obama's staff was dead set against Clinton getting secretary of state. Finally, Obama broke in sharply and said, "You guys are missing the fundamental point - she's the most qualified candidate." This time, he is.
Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist.