Analysis: Picking a fight over Susan Rice would not serve the country

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice Craig Ruttle/AP File Photo

President Obama has said many times that “part of a president’s job is to be able to deal with more than one thing at once.” But another part of a president’s job is setting priorities, and with the U.S. economy hanging in the balance, installing Susan Rice as secretary of state shouldn’t be one of them.

A newly reelected president has a limited amount of political capital that should be expended wisely. You may disagree with George W. Bush’s failed 2005 pushes on comprehensive immigration reform or private Social Security accounts, but you can’t argue that these were small ideas. Nor were Obama’s first-term drives for a massive stimulus package, health reform and an overhaul of financial regulations in the wake of the Wall Street collapse. Agree or disagree, they were fundamental and important.

Going to the mat on a personnel matter like Rice, by contrast, would be more about ego and base pacification than what’s important for the country.

It’s not that Republicans have a particularly strong case against the U.N. ambassador and her unfortunate round of Sunday show appearances on Benghazi. But her inability to win over several GOP senators in one-on-one meetings did not inspire confidence. And as many have noted, her record and temperament are problematic in some respects. Beyond that, as much as Obama may like and respect Rice, there are other good candidates for the job, topped by Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry.

In other words, a confrontation over Rice is unnecessary. It would also be counterproductive.

As former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer put it, “Nothing is isolated in the presidency. Every action has an interaction with other events.” Obama is “playing a firm hand” in the fiscal cliff standoff and trying to get Republicans to buckle on tax rates, said Fleischer, who worked for Bush. “If he also says Republicans need to buckle on Rice, all his actions would poison the well.”

Obama is not only insisting that Republicans agree to raise marginal tax rates on household income above $250,000, he’s also telling them to forget about staging a repeat of the 2011 debt ceiling standoff. “We can't afford to go there," he said at a Business Roundtable meeting on Wednesday. “If Congress in any way suggests that they’re going to tie negotiations to debt ceiling votes and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation … I will not play that game.” 

That’s just a small sampling of the struggles ahead. Negotiations on tax reform, spending cuts, entitlement reform and long-term debt reduction likely will take up much of 2013. Immigration reform looms as another difficult issue. Obama probably will also have the opportunity to name more Supreme Court justices, setting the stage for confirmation fights in the Senate. Then there is the inevitable tug-of-war over regulations and spending associated with the new Affordable Care Act.

That lineup offers plenty of moments more appropriate than a Rice nomination to go all tough and recalcitrant.

Far from a macho-style leader, Obama has dealt throughout his political career with perceptions of weakness. In his first term, Republicans accused him of bowing, apologizing and “leading from behind” in international affairs even as he accelerated drone attacks and ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  Liberals denounced his repeated attempts to reach bipartisan deals on health and budget legislation, though some now are coming to see the health law and 2011 budget deal as wins.

Obama has kept moving at his own pace in his own way, meanwhile, seemingly unconcerned about his image or leadership brand. If the past is a guide, he’s not likely to start worrying now. Just this week, referring to Rice, Bloomberg Television’s Julianna Goldman asked him: “Would it look like a sign of weakness if you did not appoint her to secretary of state?”

“No,” the president said. He called Rice “highly qualified” but added: “I’m going to make a decision about who’s going to be the best secretary of state, given we’ve got a changing world.”

The rest of his answer reflected very careful thinking. First, he won’t be like Bush having to withdraw the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, or the late George McGovern having to back off his 1,000 percent support of initial vice presidential pick Tom Eagleton. Obama has kept his options open. As he told Bloomberg, “Susan Rice has done a great job as U.N. ambassador, but I haven’t made a decision about secretary of state.”

Second, right after he said that, Obama pivoted to what everyone knows is the main event. “The most important thing we can do for national security, though, is to get our economy on track,” he said.

That’s an enormously complicated and contentious challenge all by itself. The president may well conclude that there’s no reason to alienate his negotiating partners by initiating a personnel fight that could end up damaging Rice’s reputation and ability to serve as well as the odds of securing the country’s fiscal future.

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