Fight over Susan Rice holds risks for both Obama, GOP lawmakers

President Obama and congressional Republicans appear to be itching for a fight over U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s possible nomination as secretary of State.

The ensuing political battle, however, comes with high risks and uncertain rewards for both sides.

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So far, President Obama has aggressively defended Rice from attacks by leading GOP lawmakers over her handling of the September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Challenging his critics to "go after me" at his first press conference following reelection, the president has looked to display his loyalty — and a willingness to engage the GOP in his second term — in his passionate defense of a top administration official.

But in doing so, Obama risks wasting his reelection political capital on a fight that might not be worth winning.

Republicans have already cautioned the president that Rice would face sharp opposition if she is tapped to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the second term, with nearly 100 House Republicans last week signing a letter questioning “her credibility both at home and around the world.”

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) have signaled opposition to her possible nomination, though McCain said Sunday that he would be open to considering her for the top diplomatic post.

A major battle over Rice's nomination could easily distract from the president’s other priorities, beginning with the negotiations over the looming “fiscal cliff.”

Moreover, nominating Rice could alienate top Republicans, including McCain and Graham or House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.), who will play pivotal roles in negotiating defense cuts that the White House is seeking as part of a grand bargain.

Those Republicans continued to hammer the U.N. ambassador during appearances on the Sunday shows this weekend, with GOP legislators dismissing Rice’s statement to reporters on Wednesday that she had simply conveyed talking points given to her by the intelligence community when arguing that an anti-Islam YouTube video might have sparked the violence in Libya.

"I relied solely and squarely on the information provided to me by the intelligence community," Rice told reporters at the United Nations. "I made clear that the information provided to me was preliminary and that our investigations would give us the definitive answers."

Graham dubbed that defense a “political smokescreen,” while King said he did not accept her explanation.

"That assessment was incomplete and she knew it," King said on “Meet the Press.” "As U.N. ambassador, and someone in the chain of command of the State Department, she has an obligation not to just be a puppet and take what's handed to her … If she didn't get the whole picture, she failed in her responsibility."

Graham, an especially vocal critic who has threatened to block a Rice nomination in the Senate, is also considered the linchpin for the president's other second-term goal: implementing comprehensive immigration reform.

The South Carolina lawmaker supported then-President George W. Bush's attempt at immigration reform in 2006, and has already stepped forward to support a renewed effort in the coming Congress. If Obama forces through a hypothetical Rice appointment, his administration risks alienating a crucial ally on immigration reform.

And while Obama has earned kudos from many Democrats for his support of Rice, the pressure to appoint her to head the State Department lessened earlier this month when Senate Democrats added seats in the next Congress. Obama could now appoint Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has lobbied for the position, to the post without worrying that the upper chamber would flip were Republicans to win a special election to fill Kerry's seat.

Most of all, the nomination of Rice continues to give the potentially embarrassing Benghazi story oxygen.

In a poll released earlier this month by Fox News, Americans were divided on the question of whether the Obama administration tried to cover up what happened in Libya, but a plurality disapproved of U.S. policy toward the country.

At the same time, a Pew poll released last week showed voters much more interested — and supportive of the president — in the fiscal-cliff negotiations than the events in Benghazi. A Rice nomination threatens to blunt the president's post-election polling momentum and shift focus to an issue the administration would like to avoid.

But the political risk in a Rice nomination, and the dangers in digging in, are not solely on the president's side.

For Republicans, publicly attacking an African-American woman with distinguished credentials just weeks after an election that saw Democrats dominate at the polls with both women and minorities risks further alienating growing segments of the electorate.

Already, some Democrats, including Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), have suggested that Republicans employed veiled racial "code words" to attack Rice, an African-American woman.

“To call her incompetent — a Ph.D., Rhodes scholar being called incompetent by someone who can’t hold a candle to her intellectually, by someone who said — and Sen. McCain called her incompetent, as well — but he told us that Sarah Palin was a very competent person to be the vice president of the United States,” Clyburn said on CNN’s “Starting Point.”

“That ought to tell you a little bit about his judgment.”

On Sunday, McCain said such an attack "goes with the territory."

"You can't, you know, dignify comments like that," McCain said. "I notice in this town if they can't win the argument on the merits, then they resort to those kinds of personal attacks."

But McCain also signaled a more conciliatory approach, saying that he thought Rice deserved "the benefit of explaining their position, and the actions they took” and suggested he would be open to reconsidering his threat to block her nomination, a possible sign Republicans were recognizing the danger in so aggressively targeting Rice.

"I think she deserves the ability and the opportunity to explain herself and her position," McCain said. "Just as she said. But she's not the problem. The problem is the president of the United States."

And while the conventional wisdom is that the Benghazi attack is a problem for the Obama administration, the second presidential debate, during which Mitt Romney failed to effectively hit the president’s handling of the response, underscored the high degree of difficulty in attacking a sitting president on national defense.

That polls continue to show a split electorate and low salience on the issue despite the frequency with which Republicans have hammered the president demonstrates that the American public might not be convinced that the White House erred.

The attacks also give the president an opportunity, as he did in the debates, to attempt to burnish his credentials as commander in chief by accusing Republicans of politicizing a tragedy.

Still, the potential rewards for both sides seem marginal relative to the risks involved. But with lawmakers pressing for more answers on Benghazi and Obama standing by his ambassador, both sides seem willing to continue the fight over Rice’s political future.