Susan Rice’s decision to take herself out of consideration as President Barack Obama’s next secretary of state clears the way for him to start revamping his national security team for his second term.
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, now is the leading contender to succeed Hillary Clinton in the post, according to two administration officials who asked for anonymity to discuss personnel. A decision may come next week, they said.
Meanwhile, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has emerged as a leading candidate to follow Leon Panetta as secretary of defense, according to three people familiar with the president’s thinking. Obama’s also looking for a new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, vacant since former General David Petraeus resigned last month after admitting to an extramarital affair.
Rice’s withdrawal was forced by Senate Republicans, led by John McCain of Arizona, who sought to make her a symbol of U.S. failings under Obama after the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that killed four Americans, including the ambassador.
At the same time, the Republican victory, blocking one of the president’s most loyal and favored advisers, may ease the way for foreign policy and security nominees Obama does put forth.
“It shows that the president is still cautious about picking fights with Congress on his nominees,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “But it also shows how intransigent Senate Republicans have become,” said Manley, now a senior director for QGA Public Affairs, a Washington lobbying firm.
Kerry, 69, and Hagel, 66, probably would be confirmed easily by their former colleagues, Manley said, leaving Obama room to pick different battles in national security and other areas.
Obama’s new team would have to confront an unstable Middle East, including a civil war in Syria, political unrest in Egypt, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology. The president has moved to shift the U.S. focus toward Asia, where China is ascendant and North Korea is testing long-range missiles.
Potential nominees for the CIA job include acting director Michael Morell and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan.
While Rice, 48, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also has been discussed as a future head of the National Security Council, current national security adviser Tom Donilon hasn’t indicated any plans to step aside. Rice said in her letter to the president taking herself out of the running that she intends to continue at the UN. She is meeting with Obama today at the White House, according to the president’s schedule.
Rice said that while she was confident in her ability to do the job of secretary of state, a battle over her confirmation would have disrupted the administration’s second-term agenda.
“I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly -- to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” Rice wrote in a letter to Obama released by the White House. “That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country.”
Obama accepted her decision while praising Rice as “an extraordinarily capable, patriotic, and passionate public servant.”
Clinton has said she plans to leave as Obama begins his second term. In a statement last night, she said Rice was “an indispensable partner over the past years” as the U.S. worked to secure sanctions on Iran and North Korea.
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council, declined to say who the president intends to nominate for the post or how soon he will act.
Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, praised Rice in a statement.
“We should all be grateful that she will continue to serve and contribute at the highest level,” he said.
Under Massachusetts law, the state’s governor appoints a temporary senator to fill a vacancy, followed by a special election in 145 to 160 days. The leading Republican candidate would be Senator Scott Brown, who won a special election after the death of Senator Edward Kennedy and was defeated last month by Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Possible Democratic contenders include U.S. Representative Michael Capuano, State Attorney General Martha Coakley, who lost to Brown in the 2010 race, and Governor Deval Patrick, who is close to Obama and would have to resign from his office.
Cabinet nominations are subject to Senate confirmation, and Rice had become a target of Republican Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham over statements she made after the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Graham had threatened to hold up Rice’s confirmation if Obama nominated her.
On Sunday interview shows on Sept. 16, she described the assault as a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim video that was “hijacked” by extremists, based on unclassified talking points supplied by the U.S. intelligence community.
McCain and Graham were among the Republicans who accused Rice of misleading the public.
“When it comes to Benghazi I am determined to find out what happened -- before, during, and after the attack,” Graham, of South Carolina, said in a statement after Rice’s withdrawal.
California Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was “profoundly disappointed” that Rice, “a well-qualified woman of color, would be denied the opportunity to become our next Secretary of State due to the baseless and manufactured allegations of the radical right.”
Rice yesterday went on a public-relations offensive, with an appearance on NBC News and an opinion article in the Washington Post explaining her decision to withdraw from consideration to be the top U.S. diplomat.
“Even before I was nominated for any new position, a steady drip of manufactured charges painted a wholly false picture of me,” Rice wrote in the article published on the newspaper’s website last night. “This has interfered increasingly with my work on behalf of the United States at the United Nations and with America’s agenda.”
Obama, who has defended Rice, said in a Bloomberg News interview Dec. 4 that it wouldn’t be a sign of weakness if he didn’t nominate her in the face of Republican attacks.
“I don’t really spend a lot of time on, you know, what folks say on cable news programs, attacking highly qualified personnel like Susan Rice,” Obama said.