Flying back to the United States from Asia on Air Force One in late November 2012, President Barack Obama was in high spirits. He had recently been reelected, and had just concluded a widely celebrated visit to Myanmar (also known as Burma)—the first ever by a sitting U.S. president. The trip had almost fallen apart at the last minute, when it became clear that the military government was balking at reforms that were supposed to have been in place by the time Obama arrived. A few days before he departed Washington for Asia, the president dispatched me to Myanmar with instructions to lock down our desired terms before he landed, and over three bruising days of negotiations, I did so. The final agreement included a large release of political prisoners, a commitment to allow access for humanitarian workers to war-torn ethnic areas, and permission for critics of the Burmese dictatorship to return from exile or, if living in Myanmar, to travel outside the country.
During the 20-hour journey back to Washington, Obama summoned me to his personal cabin on Air Force One and asked me what job I hoped for in his second term. My husband, Cass Sunstein, had just left the White House after three and a half years as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He was now commuting between our home in Washington and a small rental apartment near Harvard Law School, where he had resumed teaching. I did not want to leave government, but after serving as Obama’s multilateral-affairs and human-rights adviser on the National Security Council since January 2009, I was ready to try something new.
At the NSC, my portfolio had included advising the president on U.S. relations with the United Nations and other international organizations, and helping secure U.S. action to combat political repression, anti-Semitism, human trafficking, and mass atrocities. I believed that from a different perch I might be able to spur additional steps to tackle some of these issues. Susan Rice, the ambassador to the UN, was in the running to become secretary of state or national security adviser, so I told the president that I would be interested in taking her place if she left the UN.