President Obama continues to mull whether to nominate Susan Rice to be Secretary of State. How he decides on that question will tell us a lot about how he plans to approach his second term in office.
Two things have become abundantly clear since the election: 1) Obama likes Rice quite a bit and seems inclined to pick her as the successor to outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and 2) Opposition to Rice on Capitol Hill is real and lasting. (Sen. John McCain’s move to the Foreign Relations committee makes that abundantly clear.)
Given those two realities, what does Obama do?
Down one path, he nominates Rice despite the fact that Republicans like McCain (Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and even Susan Collins (Maine) have made clear that doing so will mean a nasty confirmation fight, and in spite of the fact that many Democrats are (privately) leery of having to vote on a pick who has generated controversy even before she is nominated. (Remember that Senate Democrats have to defend 20 seats to 14 for Republicans in 2014, including those in hostile territory like Louisiana, Arkansas, South Dakota and West Virginia.)
That is best described as the damn-the-torpedos path — in two ways.
First, the Rice nomination would likely land right in the middle of the final fiscal cliff negotiations and could poison any good will built up with congressional Republicans. It would also make clear to Republicans that Obama the deal-cutter is gone, upping the ante even more on the fiscal cliff talks. Even if Obama does wait until early 2013 to pick a nominee, he would have to massage it around his inauguration in late January and the coming debt ceiling fight scheduled for late February. Either way, it wouldn’t be easy.
Second, it would put Senate Democrats out on a limb they have made abundantly clear they don’t want to be on. That would be a clear signal to his party that Obama is, first and foremost, all about Obama — something congressional Democrats have long suspected. If Obama does go forward with Rice, rallying his party to some of his preferred second-term initiatives could get very complicated. In short: The reservoir of good will would be drained very quickly.
Then there is the path of least resistance. In that scenario, Obama goes with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as Secretary of State and finds another, less controversial post for Rice.
A nomination fight at the start of his second term is almost certainly dodged — people like Collins have relentlessly insisted that Kerry would be confirmed without any trouble — but Obama could (and likely would) be painted in some circles as toothless. A narrative would build — although it’s not clear whether it would be sustained — that Obama was giving in (again) to Republicans and we might even see a few “Is the liberal base abandoning Obama” stories.
After all, Obama is a month removed from a convincing reelection victory, and Republicans are in the midst of an examination of their party and its principles. Now is a time to be bold, not a time to capitulate to the threats of the likes of McCain, the argument from the left will go. (The Arizona senator remains a loathed figure by the Democratic base following his 2008 bid for president.)
It’s not clear how widespread that dissatisfaction might be. Bypassing Rice for Kerry is different than bypassing Rice for, say, McCain. Undoubtedly there would be some element of the liberal left unhappy, but how many “real people” would sour on Obama and his policies if he made the switch?
On the other hand, stepping back from the brink on Rice would also likely be taken as a signal that the ever-pragmatic Obama wants to spend his political capital on things like fixing the nation’s debt problem and reforming the country’s immigration system rather than on a Cabinet nominee — even one as prominent as Secretary of State.
White House insiders make clear that Obama remains genuinely undecided on who to nominate for Secretary of State. And understandably so given that how he picks could well set the philosophical tone for the next four years.
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