There is one curious fact that still remains unsettled since the now-famous Susan Rice imbroglio of last December which led to her withdrawal from consideration for the job as U.S. Secretary of State -- namely did President Obama ever really consider her seriously for the position? We know that Obama told the media in the final months of 2012 that he had not made up his mind at that time about any one individual. And, in addition, during the period when the possible Rice appointment began to get widespread public attention, Obama reiterated that stance. What is notable, though, is that, even as the controversy spread, Obama never hinted as to his own personal feelings about Rice in that post.
The reason why this question has now arisen again is that last week on the Morning Joe TV show, Obama's former chief political strategist, David Axelrod, made a little-noticed observation regarding the Rice matter. He stated, that, while he liked Rice very much, he did not recall hearing Obama ever once mentioning her as a possible Secretary of State, though he did recall Obama speaking about Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as a person who would be a fine appointee for that slot.
What's interesting about Axelrod's statement is that he really did not have to offer any thoughts about Rice on the show. Nobody on the daily panel -- much less nationally -- was raising the issue. Rice, after all, had already withdrawn; Obama had designated Kerry as his official choice; the dispute had died down in the press. So why did Axelrod suddenly cite the episode again, especially on a show which many political observers watch closely for better guidance and broader explanations at to what is happening in Washington?
It is possible that Axelrod saw his remarks as a way to protect the president from any lingering criticism over his handling of the Rice issue. There had, after all, been some undercurrent of discontent among women's groups who were upset over Rice's public humiliation. Also, the very visible scuttling of Rice did suggest to many observers that, despite Obama's reelection, Obama was once again showing how he caves into Republicans under a barrage of partisan attacks.
In this event, Axelrod may have wished to convey the strong impression that Obama was not the person to blame for Rice's failure. This public wrangle, he seemed to imply, had been entirely created by the media who knew that Rice lusted after the job, was close to the president and was anticipating to be on the list for consideration. But, in truth, Axelrod was saying, the president never intended to put Rice in the top post. So, if there was any blame for this fiasco, it was on the tabloid press, or on Internet chatter, or on mischievous gossips for creating this phony crisis.
But Axelrod might have had one other purpose in mind, too. He might also have been intending to send a message on behalf of Obama to Obama's own players in his administration -- don't try to campaign for a job through the media. It will only backfire on you. Rice herself, in remarks she delivered to the annual United Nations Correspondents dinner in December, gave a humorous and self-deprecating address about her interest in becoming secretary of state, and later spoke to The New Republic about the job -- all but confirming that she had, indeed, craved the cabinet post. But in this public rush and eagerness to downplay the matter, she seemed to inadvertently intimate that she herself may have been behind the numerous leaks in the press about her possible appointment. Whatever the case may be, Axelrod implies that Obama had to lay down the law about his own authority in choosing his cabinet.
Now, of course, the question also arises -- why do we assume that an Obama conversation with Axelrod about the position of secretary of state was important in the first place? After all, Axelrod was not a foreign policy specialist; there is little evidence that he vetted any appointments for Obama; and, in any case, he had stepped down as Obama's political advisor after the presidential election to become director of a political think-tank in Chicago. So, for all those reasons, it seems unlikely that Obama would have had a serious talk with him about the position. Axelrod may have simply brought up the Rice incident to reinforce his own credentials as an insider with Morning Joe's media crowd, rather than because it had any ultimate meaning for Obama or Rice.
We will never know. But it is surely startling that one of the president's most intimate confidantes did make provocative remarks on the Rice question on a widely seen TV broadcast long after the media had buried the story or relegated to its back pages.