It was a classic Washington exit: stealthy and swift, with few fingerprints. President Obama didn’t want to be seen as backing down. So Susan Rice — one of his most devoted aides since 2007 — gave him the way out, seemingly all on her own.
“If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive, and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” Rice wrote on Thursday in a letter withdrawing her name from consideration as secretary of State.
In a statement in response, Obama said that “while I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks,” he “accepted her decision.” He added that Rice will continue as his U.N. ambassador for the time being.
This was all the part intended for public consumption. The underlying reality is this: The president is almost certainly furious about this turn of events — which represents the first major defeat he’s suffered since his reelection — but he’s a savvy enough politician to know how to back off without seeming to back down. While floating Rice’s name for secretary of State in the media was always something of a trial balloon — she was never formally nominated or even publicly declared by the administration to be the leading candidate to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton — Obama appeared to really want to appoint her, calling her “extraordinary” and excoriating GOP attacks on her with unusual (for him) personal pique.
But as the weeks passed, it became clearer that Rice’s biggest political problem was no longer just the klatch of Republican senators, led by John McCain, who were fiercely criticizing her for allegedly misleading statements on the attack at the U.S. consulate that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11.
After a series of strikingly unsuccessful meetings on Capitol Hill in which she failed to impress even moderate Republicans such as Susan Collins of Maine, Rice also found herself facing resistance from foreign-policy elites who questioned her temperament and her record. In addition, human-rights critics were up in arms over her behavior toward African dictators, particularly her role in allegedly holding up publication of a U.N. report that concluded the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, with whom she has a long and close relationship, was supplying and financing a brutal Congolese rebel force known as the M23 Movement.
That may have been the tipping point, though an official on Rice's team declined to say so. As she put it herself in her letter to Obama, the president had some other “pressing national international priorities.… It is far more important that we devote precious legislative hours and energy to enacting your core goals, including comprehensive immigration reform, balanced deficit reduction, job creation, and maintaining a robust national defense and effective U.S. global leadership.”
In other words, the Obama team was quickly coming to realize that, even though it appeared he had considerable leverage over the Republicans following a more-robust-than-thought reelection victory, a Rice nomination was simply going to cost him too much political capital, especially when it came to a long-term budget deal.
Two administration officials did not respond to e-mailed questions asking whether Rice’s letter had been solicited by the White House.
So exit Susan Rice, and enter a far more confirmable candidate, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who has long coveted the job at State, having acted largely as an advocate for the administration’s policies over the past four years as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Last week, two officials on the Obama team told National Journal that the president was “genuinely conflicted” about which one to choose. Now Obama no longer has to be.
Still, giving State to Kerry also means opening up a Senate seat in Massachusetts. That would prompt a special election that could allow recently defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown to recapture a seat in 2013, a risk Democrats may prefer not to take given that they have a slew of other vulnerable seats on the line in 2014.
Evade one risk in Washington, and another always appears.