President Obama has learned a thing or two about Washington during his first four years in office—notably that sometimes it's best to cut your losses and move on to bigger things. This is what happened in the Susan Rice case as Obama decided that pushing for Rice as secretary of state would alienate too many legislators and jeopardize his larger agenda on Capitol Hill.
Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced Thursday that she doesn't want to be considered any longer for the job of America's top diplomat. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to step down early next year. Contrary to the impression that the White House wished to leave—that Rice withdrew from consideration on her own—it's likely that this whole scenario was orchestrated with Obama's approval in advance. The Washington Post reported that Rice informed Obama formally that she was dropping out the day before she announced it, and Obama didn't resist.
"I think it was more in this particular instance a decision about whether to have another significant distraction and partisan fight amid a lot of other priorities," a senior administration official told the Post. "Now it's one less log on the fire."
Major appointees who are close friends of a president, such as Rice, rarely decide to withdraw from consideration for a high-profile government job on their own. It's likely that she talked it over with someone else close to the president, if not Obama himself, before making up her mind. That's the way Washington works.
All in all, the Obama White House handled it deftly. He never actually picked Rice but allowed her name to float as a trial balloon, to see what the reaction would be. It wasn't good.
Above all, administration officials apparently decided that Rice's nomination would have caused so much animosity that it could have undermined Obama's other goals, including his most important objective of all—finding a budget compromise with Congress and avoiding the "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax hikes and severe spending cuts. They are scheduled to start phasing in on January 1 if no compromise is reached. And the negotiations are proceeding so laboriously it's clear that Obama will need all the goodwill he can find in order to cut a deal.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, had served notice that they were going to give Rice a very hard time because of her controversial and inaccurate comments about who was behind the attacks that killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, in Benghazi, Libya, in September.
Now the way is open for Obama to nominate Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as secretary of state. Kerry would be likely to clear the Senate with ease.
Capitol Hill veterans recall other cases where presidents pushed ahead with nominees and poisoned the well, or waited too long before arranging their withdrawals. These cases include George H.W. Bush's choice of former Republican Sen. John Tower of Texas as defense secretary. Bush insisted on a Senate vote, and Tower was rejected, resulting in hard feelings that lasted for months. Bush also chose Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court and refused to back down in the face of powerful opposition. Thomas won confirmation in a narrow Senate vote, but Bush alienated some powerful senators in the process because he chose such a controversial nominee. Some considered Bush's loyalty to Thomas admirable; others felt that he dragged the Senate through a divisive confirmation process when he could have chosen someone less polarizing.
George W. Bush settled on his longtime friend Harriet Miers for a Supreme Court vacancy in 2005. She was White House legal counsel at the time, but many conservatives said she lacked the necessary experience to serve on the Supreme Court and wasn't a reliable conservative. Miers withdrew her name in less than a month, which ended what would have been a nasty and protracted battle..
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.