Over the span of one week, two different sides of President Obama emerged in different yet unforgettable terms. This first was political, involving Susan Rice's decision to withdraw her name as a candidate for Secretary of State. The second was deeply personal in the wake of mass murders in a Newtown, Conn. elementary school.
In a column explaining her decision to withdraw her name, Rice said:
" . . . As it became clear that my potential nomination would spark an enduring partisan battle, I concluded 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."
That was the public perception: A loyal UN Ambassador declining to fight for a promotion so that an embattled president could avoid a showdown with Republican hypocrites in the Senate.
Just as Rice withdrew her name to give Obama a way out, I believe that if the president had insisted, Rice would have kept her name in the ring and ultimately would have been confirmed by the Senate to succeed Hillary Clinton as the next Secretary of State. But evidently Obama would rather switch than fight, to paraphrase an old cigarette commercial.
According to the Washington Post, "When asked if Obama had tried to dissuade her, [Rice] said that he 'understood that this was the right decision, and that I made it for the right reasons.'"
In his statement accepting Rice's decision, Obama said, "While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first . . ."
Obama didn't demonstrate any strength of character when he abandoned Rice. And this is one of the troubling things about Obama: He frequently caves in to Republican extremists, even when he has public opinion on his side.
When Obama first defended Rice, we all thought he had finally discovered some political backbone. He said at a news conference, "If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody they should go after me. For them to go after the UN ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi...to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
Game on. Or so we thought.
Had Obama chosen to fight, it would have set the tone for his second term. Instead, he retreated behind the comfort and safety of Susan Rice's loyalty rather than standing up to conservative bullies. Republicans not only have Rice as a political trophy, but if Senator John Kerry is the eventual nominee as expected, they will get a chance to replace him with Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.
This is not the first case of political timidity by Democrats. Republicans nominate – and fight for – for extreme ideologues to serve on the Supreme Court. Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts are but three examples. But weak-kneed Democrats are afraid to fight for liberal justices and instead settle for centrist nominees who will be "accepted" by Republicans. The end result is a more conservative Supreme Court because Republicans nominate far-right conservatives and Democrats don't have the guts to offer a liberal counter-balance. This was true of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
While President Obama refused to fight for a Susan Rice nomination to be Secretary of State, he demonstrated in Newtown, Conn. that he is at his best when serving as Comforter-in-Chief to a bereaved nation.
The president visited the city two days after the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to authorities, Adam P. Lanza, a 20-year-old gunman, inflicted the carnage before killing himself.
"I can only hope it helps for you to know that you're not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we've pulled our children tight," President Obama said. "And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide; whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it."
Obama noted that he has attended similar services in three other cities.
"Since I've been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we've hugged survivors. The fourth time we've consoled the families of victims," he said. "And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America – victims whose – much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
[George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.]