New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 6, 2013
WASHINGTON >> President Barack Obama’s defiant selection of Susan Rice as his new national security adviser Wednesday underscored the newly assertive approach he has taken to appointments ever since he abandoned a potential cabinet nominee named Susan Rice.
Obama made no secret of how upset he was when he passed over Rice for secretary of state last winter amid a furor about the handling of the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Ever since, however, he has been choosing appointees and nominees he knew would provoke fights with Republicans, almost as if trying to redeem the moment.
The unapologetic selections reflect a conclusion in the West Wing that, when it comes to choosing personnel, the president can never satisfy Republicans who will find almost anyone objectionable. But his choices also highlight the complicated second-term balancing act for a president unconstrained by re-election concerns and therefor freer to challenge Congress, yet still hoping to forge deals by courting the opposition with dinners and White House meetings.
The blend of conciliation and confrontation has produced some victories, most notably tax increases on the wealthy and progress toward an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.
It has yet to help him pass gun control measures or reach a long-term consensus on deficits, however.
Nor has it shielded him from gales of criticism recently over Benghazi, IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups and Justice Department seizures of journalists’ phone records.
On filling out his second-term team, at least, Obama has decided not to avoid conflict. For secretary of defense, he picked former Sen. Chuck Hagel even knowing that many of his former Republican colleagues did not care for him. He named nominees for secretary of labor, secretary of commerce, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. trade representative who had records sure to draw opposition. He resubmitted his choice to run his new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after his nomination had been frozen.
Much as he decided Wednesday to ignore the criticism of Rice’s public descriptions of the Benghazi attack, Obama just last week nominated to a new State Department post a department official who was directly involved in scrubbing the talking points that Rice used. And the day before appearing in the Rose Garden with Rice, he showed up in the same place to nominate three lawyers to the nation’s most prominent appeals court, essentially daring Republicans to block them.
“The president isn’t going to trim his sails on people he thinks are qualified for the job,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a White House senior adviser. “Even folks who on their face should be noncontroversial can be made controversial in this media environment and with this Republican opposition. That argues strongly for picking the people you think are going to do the best job and not allowing today’s Republican Party to have veto power.”
Some Republicans see the president’s actions as unnecessarily combative. Ed Rogers, a lobbyist and former White House aide to Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, said he “was stunned” by what he called a “very partisan diatribe” when Obama announced his judicial nominees this week.
“As if that’s going to make Mitch McConnell go, ’Oh, OK, I get it,’” Rogers said, referring to the Senate Republican leader.
He noted some recent mocking on Twitter by David Plouffe, the president’s former adviser, as well as the Rice appointment, which is not subject to Senate approval.
“There’s a lot of taunting, a lot of in your face,” Rogers said. “To me, he is throwing the towel in on governing, and it’s just going to be about his grievances. I don’t get it.”
Plouffe said Wednesday that it was the other side that was being partisan.
“The fact that filling judicial vacancies with clearly qualified and noncontroversial nominees still elicits criticism from Congressional GOP shows there is no bar low enough to satisfy them,” he said by email.
In any case, the choice of Rice sent a message. For weeks after his re-election, Obama’s team sent signals that she was a leading choice or even the leading choice for secretary of state. But after she went on network talk shows describing the Benghazi terrorist attack as stemming from spontaneous protests of an anti-Muslim video, she became radioactive on Capitol Hill and withdrew. Obama opted for John Kerry instead.
The decision was emotional inside the administration as some saw it as abandoning a friend under fire. Associates said Rice resented being deserted by a president she had served loyally since his 2008 campaign. After the fact, White House aides said that she was never actually going to get the job and that Obama had always intended to name her national security adviser but could not say that at the time because Tom Donilon’s plans to leave by this summer were a secret.
Either way, once subsequent nominees came under attack, most notably Hagel, Obama refused to back down. He nominated Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez for labor secretary even after Republicans criticized his actions at the Justice Department. He nominated Gina McCarthy to lead the EPA even though he knew she would stir opposition among foes of environmental regulation.
He sent the Senate nominations for Penny Pritzker as commerce secretary and Michael Froman as trade representative despite her family’s involvement with a failed bank and his Cayman Islands fund and use of a tax loophole that Obama has sought to close. He also renominated Richard Cordray for consumer affairs chief in the face of opposition and last week nominated Victoria Nuland, who helped edit the much-criticized Benghazi talking points, as an assistant secretary of state.
In the end, some or most may be confirmed. Pfeiffer noted that with most tough confirmations, at least some Republicans have chosen to work with the White House. Republicans offered little criticism Wednesday, for instance, of Obama’s selection of Samantha Power to replace Rice as ambassador to the United Nations, which is subject to Senate approval.
Neera Tanden, a former Obama official and president of the liberal Center for American Progress, said the president’s calculation had changed in a second term.
“He’s liberated from having to make an electoral calculation around any decision he makes,” she said. “He’s not going to face the voters again. In some ways, that allows him to pick the people he wants to choose.”