The decision was hers, senior administration officials said. But Obama, who pledged to defend her vigorously just five weeks ago, did not try to talk one of his most-favored candidates out of it.
His decision to accept her withdrawal served as an acknowledgment that even a president fresh from reelection has only a limited amount of political latitude in a still-sharply partisan Washington.
Obama has only a few weeks to negotiate a year-end deal with congressional Republicans to avert the “fiscal cliff.” And with two years left to make his mark before lame-duck status begins to set in, he plans to move quickly on immigration reform and perhaps climate-change legislation that could help define his legacy.
A prolonged fight over Rice’s nomination would have interrupted those plans — perhaps for only a few weeks, but perhaps for far longer given the bad blood such fights have stirred up in the past.
As partisan criticism grew in recent weeks, Senate Democrats told White House officials that, while Rice’s nomination would probably succeed in the end, it would come at a steep political cost to the rest of his agenda.
“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,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel issues. “Now it’s one less log on the fire.”
Rice, who is scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House tomorrow afternoon, alluded to the likely fight and the threat it posed to Obama’s broader agenda in her letter to the president Thursday, in which she also said that “the position of Secretary of State should never be politicized.”
But for Obama, a famously cool politician who rarely lets emotion intervene in decisions, the Rice episode provoked anger and, in the end, a sense of resignation over how little Washington has been altered by the recent election.
In his post-victory news conference last month, Obama challenged Senate Republicans critical of Rice to come after him instead, saying that “when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me.”
“And should I choose, if I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity of the State Department, then I will nominate her,” Obama said. “That’s not a determination that I’ve made yet.”
Rice had emerged as the face of the administration’s inconsistent response to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.