Susan Rice battle not worth it for Obama
WASHINGTON—A month ago, a freshly re-elected President Barack Obama was defiant as he dared Congress to battle him over his apparent choice of close friend Susan Rice to be the next secretary of state.
He told a national television audience that Republican criticism of Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, was "outrageous," and he offered a lengthy, vigorous and unusually personal defense. "They should go after me," he dared.
Thursday, Obama blinked, backing down quickly from a brawl he had yet to officially engage in, and signaling to lawmakers that despite his political bravado, he may not be ready for a big fight. At least not this fight.
"This will be viewed as a minus in the presidential column," said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. "We're not even done with the fiscal cliff and Republicans have made it unmistakably clear: 'We don't care if you're one of only 17 presidents to be re-elected. Don't think you can have your way. Here, you can't.'"
Presidential scholar George Edwards agreed.
"Susan Rice's withdrawal is a bit of an embarrassment for the president and shows the limits of his ability to move opposition party senators. It is also a means of cutting his losses and moving on," said the Texas A&M University political science professor.
It's unclear whether the incident will have lasting damage. It does permit Obama to avoid what Rice predicted would be a "lengthy, disruptive and costly" nomination fight.
John Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, called it a "blip," but, he said of Obama, "Sometimes he picks fights he doesn't have to pick."
And the calculus may have been not to, especially with an battle over taxes and spending that could dominate Washington beyond the looming fiscal-cliff crisis and into the next year.
"He probably just has his plate full and didn't need another fight," said Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.
When or whether Obama fights has long perplexed his supporters.
During his first four years, backers criticized him for being too unwilling to challenge Republicans, perhaps because he was too unschooled in the ways of Washington.
He had been a US senator for only two years before he began running for president, and he had never really engaged in the maw of negotiating with Congress.
Backers were aghast at his willingness in 2010 to extend Bush-era tax cuts for two more years, including retaining tax cuts for the wealthy.
They also felt that Republicans dragged out the 2009-10 health-care debate with procedural roadblocks and tormented Democrats with unfair criticisms, creating doubts about the plan that helped the GOP regain control of the House in 2010.
Last month, though, after becoming the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win a majority of the popular vote twice in a row, Obama was energized and more willing to engage in political combat.
Nominating Rice seemed a logical step from this new, feistier White House. She had the resume as a career diplomat and support among Senate Democrats, who will control 55 of the chamber's 100 seats starting in January.
But Republicans opposed Rice as soon as her name was floated.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's 2008 opponent, led the charge with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC.
Obama seemed to be ready for a brawl.
The next fight may not be a fight at all. "I don't think there will be long-term consequences, because it does not reveal anything new about his strategic position," said Edwards of Texas A&M. "It just shows that he chose not to fall on his sword in a lost cause."