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 U.S.’s United Nations ambassador, 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 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 noted of Obama, “Sometimes he picks fights he doesn’t have to pick.”
And the calculus may have been not to, especially with an epic 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 U.S. senator 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 of Representatives 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.
He has refused to give much so far in negotiations over averting the fiscal cliff. Republicans thought they had conceded a lot by saying they’d agree to $800 billion in new revenue, and perhaps accept higher taxes on the wealthy, but Obama infuriated them by countering with a proposal to raise $1.6 trillion in revenue.
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 a handful of Republicans opposed Rice as soon as her name was floated in the news media. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama’s 2008 opponent, led the charge, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Obama seemed to be ready for the coming brawl.
"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said in a White House news conference a week after his re-election. “And I’m happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador? Who had nothing to do with Benghazi? And was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received? To besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
Republicans, though, didn’t back down. Immediately after the press conference, Graham, known as someone Democrats can do business with, struck back.
“Mr. President, don’t think for one minute I don’t hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi,” he said, referring to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate where four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed.
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.”