WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama knew before he picked up the phone on Thursday afternoon what Susan E. Rice, his ambassador to the United Nations, was calling about: She wanted to take herself out of the running for secretary of state and spare him a fight.
By acceding to Rice’s request, which she had conveyed to White House aides the night before, Obama averted a bitter, potentially disruptive battle with Republicans in Congress at the start of his second term and at a time when his administration is struggling to reach a politically difficult deal on the federal budget.
In a statement, the president praised Rice and expressed his regret over the withering criticism directed at her by Republicans because of comments she made in the aftermath of the lethal attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks,” he said, “her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first.”
By all accounts, Rice had been Obama’s first choice to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton, though recently he seemed to be signaling that her nomination was far from a foregone conclusion.
Her decision to withdraw, which senior officials insist Rice made without prodding from the White House, clears the way for Obama to nominate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, officials said.
Republicans say Kerry would sail through a confirmation process, while several senators had vowed to block Rice’s nomination, citing what they said were her misleading statements about the Sept. 11 attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
By stepping aside, Rice will allow Obama to present a full slate of appointees to his national security team, as early as next week. Among the other candidates for key posts, officials said, is former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., for secretary of defense. Like Kerry, Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who opposed the Iraq war, would be supported by many of his former colleagues.
Their nominations would also remove a major source of tension between the White House and congressional Republicans, who had expanded their attack on Rice from Benghazi to a broader indictment of her record as a policymaker on Africa, her role in securing U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that came under terrorist attack, and even her personal finances.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and one of Rice’s fiercest critics, said Thursday that he respected her decision, but added in a statement that he planned “to continue working diligently to get to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi.”
In a letter she sent to Obama before her call, Rice attributed her decision to a recognition that “the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. The trade-off is simply not worth it to our country.”
Obama said he accepted her request with regret, describing her in a statement as “an extraordinarily capable, patriotic, and passionate public servant” with a “limitless capability to serve our country.” That line, one official said, signaled that Rice, who will continue in her job at the U.N., remains a candidate for other senior posts, including national security adviser.
“She made her own decision and I think it’s the right decision,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a Foreign Relations Committee member.