If the heat on UN Ambassador Susan Rice wasn't intense enough from GOP senators that are using her as a surrogate to batter President Obama, now Rice faces more heat from a green group. They have filled the liberal blogosphere with articles and a petition demanding that Rice divest her investments in TransCanada Corporation. This is the company that seeks approval to build the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline to the Gulf Coast. Supposedly this is a conflict of interest that makes her unfit for the Secretary of State post.
The big question beyond the issue of the ethics or even relevance of Rice's investments is whether this poses yet another peril to President Obama if he nominates her as Secretary of State. The peril is that a nasty, protracted fight over her nomination would be at best a distraction and at worst a stain on the administration at a critical moment when Obama must marshal all the political capital he can to try and get the bunch of stuck in the sand GOP senators to bend on his tax and budget proposals.
It won't hurt him. All presidents from time to time face some backlash from real or manufactured controversies by opponents over a potential nominee to the Supreme Court, a cabinet or diplomatic post. In 2008, Obama faced backlash when he nominated Eric Holder as Attorney General. A pack of GOP senators huffed and puffed at Holder for alleged transgressions involving presidential pardons he signed off on as Clinton's Deputy Attorney General. In the end he was confirmed. The mild tiff over Holder didn't dampen, diminish, or tarnish Obama in his hard pursuit of his major first term initiative, namely health care reform.
This was true three years earlier when then President Bush nominated Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State. Rice was slammed hard by some Democratic senators for being up to her eyeballs in selling the phony, conniving Bush falsehood on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The threat to delay Rice's confirmation in the Senate quickly fizzled out, and she was confirmed. This did not distract or dampen Bush in his pursuit of his key initiatives. There was not the slightest inference that in nominating Rice, and standing behind her in the face of Democrats grumbles about her would threaten his push of his administration's larger agenda items.
Susan Rice will continue to be a handy and cynical whipping person for the GOP to hector Obama. But the political reality is that the legislative business that Congress and the White House must do never has been shut down by any political squabble over a presidential appointee. The fiscal cliff is an issue that's too critical to the fiscal and economic well-being of too many interest groups to think that Rice's possible nomination will be any kind of impediment to an eventual deal brokered by the GOP and the White House.
The Rice flap won't interfere in any way with other White House pursuits for another reason. By holding Rice hostage to a resolution of the fiscal cliff peril and other crucial legislative issues, the GOP would badly shoot itself in the foot. It would open the gate wide to the blatant politicizing of presidential appointments by subjecting every presidential appointment to a litmus test, not on the fitness of the nominee for the job, but on whether the appointee could be a bargaining chip to oppose a vital piece of legislation or a major White House initiative. This would hopelessly blur the legislative process and ultimately could be turned against a future GOP president. This is a slippery slope that Democrats and the GOP dare not risk going down.
Rice will not be Obama's only appointment at the start of his second term. He will -- as all presidents -- see a small revolving door of some cabinet members and agency heads that will leave, and must be replaced. There almost certainly will be another Obama pick that will raise some eyebrows and draw inevitable fire from either the GOP or some interests groups. Just as other presidents, Obama will have to weigh carefully the political fallout, if any, from his pick. But as is usually the case, the likelihood of any lasting harm to the administration will be minimal to nonexistent.
The White House vetting process for a potential nominee to any government position is fairly straightforward. It requires that nominees divest themselves of any investment that poses a potential conflict of interest relative to the office they'll fill. Rice's investment in the company that seeks to build the pipeline was not an issue or cause of controversy during her four-year tenure as UN ambassador and in other diplomatic posts she held. It certainly has no bearing on whether she is competent and qualified to be an effective face for American diplomacy. Above all, if Obama nominates her for Secretary of State, neither a scrutiny of her investments, or the GOP's fulminations about her, will drain any of Obama's political capital.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.