(The Root) — In the face of what the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart described Thursday as the "ignoble hounding" by Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, here is the final irony of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice's request to withdraw her name from consideration as a candidate to be the next secretary of state: The quintessentially patriotic sentiment that Rice expressed in her withdrawal letter to President Barack Obama and her accompanying op-ed demonstrated that she was, probably, most worthy of succeeding Hillary Clinton as our top diplomat.
Displaying a selflessness rarely found in today's politics, Rice exposed the petulance of McCain, Graham and Ayotte and offered a spot-on analysis of the political landscape, writing to the president (pdf) that "the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly" and in the Washington Post that "it would be wrong to allow this debate to continue distracting from urgent national priorities — creating jobs, growing our economy, addressing our deficit, reforming our immigration system and protecting our national security."
And she's right.
If the president had nominated her in the face of opposition from congressional Republicans, an ugly Washington whisper campaign that characterized her (with more than a tinge of gender bias) as "brusque" and "aggressive," recent criticism of her friendly ties with Ethiopia's dictator and questions about her interest in the Canadian company building the Keystone XL pipeline, it would have unnecessarily placed President Obama in a position of picking a protracted fight with Congress over a member of his inner circle at the expense of his more important and urgent fight with Congress over taxes, spending and eventually raising the debt ceiling.
It's a setback for Rice, but it was ultimately the right call for the Obama administration.
Although there's not much of substantive case against Rice — as ambassador to the United Nations, she played a key role in what is arguably Obama's greatest diplomatic success: getting the Security Council and Arab League to bless NATO intervention in Libya — she fell prey to the GOP's exaggeration of her role in the administration's response to the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
And however unfair this might be, no one — maybe not even Rice herself — was going to benefit from an ugly Senate confirmation battle in which Obama spent precious political capital, gained in November's election, on a contentious nomination battle with the same members of Congress that he's trying to bend to his will on taxes and spending.
It's a classic "Know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em" situation, and in the name of starting his second term on the right foot, this was a time for Obama to fold 'em.
It will likely be characterized as a sign of the president's weakness — Dan Rather already suggested that capitulation on the Rice issue could mean that for the GOP, "President Obama is a guy who can be rolled for his wallet and his watch" — but it could also mean that Obama has become a more seasoned leader. Because while the political commentariat might see this as an unjust trashing of a rising star — and it is — the average American will be perfectly comfortable if Obama appoints the default choice: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, whom those same average Americans nearly elected president just eight years ago.
After all, even though Rice was one of Obama's early backers, Obama probably owes Kerry just as much politically as he does her — because it was Kerry who gave then-unknown state Sen. Obama his break on the national stage by tapping the future president to be the keynoter at Kerry's 2004 nominating convention.
And even though the optics are bad for both Obama and Republicans — installing an older white guy as his top diplomat instead of an impeccably credentialed African-American woman — this isn't a case where there's a barrier break at issue: Three of the last four secretaries of state have been women, and two of the last three have been black.
In that light, it's hard to see this as anything other than a rational political calculation by a president about to embark on a second term that will likely include heated budget battles, a tough withdrawal from Afghanistan, contested Supreme Court appointments and the painstaking implementation of its much-maligned health care reform: far bigger fish to fry than a lengthy nomination battle over Susan Rice.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.