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First Thoughts: The importance of picking your fights

Ambassador Susan Rice explains her decision to drop out of consideration for secretary of state, saying it was the 'right thing for the country.' NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

The Susan Rice story and the importance of picking your fights… Kerry now becomes the overwhelming front-runner for secretary of state… Question: Why did the Benghazi talking points overshadow everything else about the attack?... On yesterday’s “frank” meeting between Obama and Boehner… Jindal: The GOP has been “stupid” on birth control… And “Meet the Press” has Lindsey Graham and Dianne Feinstein.

*** The importance of picking your fights: To explain why U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice pulled out of consideration for the secretary of state post, it’s important to remember this: A president only gets a finite number of fights with Congress, especially in the first year of a second term (which may be the last BIG year a president can win fights with Congress). And appointing Rice as secretary of state was going to be a fight, no doubt about it. So if you’re a White House with a big upcoming agenda (resolving the fiscal-cliff situation, passing comprehensive immigration reform, maybe tackling energy or education) and if you’re split on the top choice on the secretary of state (our reporting indicates that Rice was never the clear-cut favorite), sometimes the path of least resistance is the smart play. And Rice made that very point in her interview on “Rock Center” with NBC’s Brian Williams: “I didn't want to see a confirmation process that was very prolonged -- very politicized, very distracting, and very disruptive. Because there are so many things we need to get done as a country.” Remember, Obama and his team have always been pragmatists, though that pragmatism also brings criticism like this Buzzfeed piece entitled, “Obama Shows Weakness, Again.” But make no mistake: Rice isn’t going away, and she likely gets the next big foreign-policy opening. She took one for Team Obama, and he’ll remember that down that road. And Obama meets with Rice at the White House later today…

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice listens to U.S. President Barack Obama speak during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington November 28, 2012.

*** Kerry becomes the overwhelming front-runner: But the person who’s now the overwhelming front-runner for the secretary of state is Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). As we noted above, the White House was divided about the second-term pick -- some wanted Rice, others wanted Kerry. But what shouldn’t get overlooked is how good of a soldier Kerry was during all the controversy surrounding Rice. Perhaps the top example of this: Earlier this month at a news conference, John McCain, who had been Rice’s top critic, responded to a Kerry introduction by saying, “Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.” Kerry poked back, “Thank you very much, Mr. President.” Ouch. Of course, the big irony here is that Rice was viewed more as an interventionist like McCain, while Kerry could end up being much more cautious. If Kerry ends up being Obama’s pick for secretary of state, it would trigger a special election for his Senate seat (with defeated Sen. Scott Brown waiting in the wings). Here’s what you would need to know: The special would take place 145 to 160 days after Kerry resigns his seat. So if Kerry steps down on Jan. 21, the special election primary would have to take place between Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 18. The special general would then have to take place between Friday, June 14 and Saturday, June 29.

NBC's David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell weigh in on the fallout of Ambassador Susan Rice's decision to remove her name for consideration for secretary of state and whether it will have any impact on the fiscal cliff negotiations.

*** Why did the talking points overshadow everything else? The Susan Rice story -- and the politics surrounding it -- also prompts this question for our brethren in the news media: Why did the unclassified talking points that Rice read back in September overshadow everything else about the attack in Benghazi? As the New York Times suggested a few weeks ago, we know more about those unclassified talking points than we know about the state of security for U.S. diplomats in Libya, the suspected terrorist group that committed the attack (Ansar al-Shariah, which isn’t the organization Osama bin Laden founded but which has possible links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), and the status of the United States’ pursuit of Ansar al-Shariah. In recent weeks, Rice and the talking points have even overshadowed the story about what took place in Benghazi on Sept. 11 and the four Americans who died. Rice, in fact, made this point on “Rock Center”: “My greatest regret, to be honest, is the Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was a valued colleague of mine, and our three other colleagues-- what happened to them and why, has been lost in all of this debate over talking points and over me.”

*** The new cabinet: One more piece of potential fallout regarding Kerry for Rice. The other two big cabinet openings besides state are Defense and Treasury. Right now, the front-runners for those two jobs appear to be Chuck Hagel for Defense and Jack Lew for Treasury. Aides to the president have made it clear for years that having a Cabinet that “looks like America” is a co-priority for the president along with qualification. So don’t be surprised if some more effort doesn’t get put into vetting some women for both posts. Might Michelle Flournoy end up getting a second look at Defense? How about Lael Brainard at Treasury? (She has Tim Geithner’s OLD job at Treasury.)

*** A “frank” meeting: Now we turn to the showdown over the fiscal cliff and yesterday’s meeting between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. From what we’ve gathered, the meeting was as much about trying to figure out HOW to negotiate as WHAT to negotiate. That’s how stalled the negotiations have become. Both sides released this identical statement after the meeting: “The president and the speaker met for 50 minutes in the Oval Office. The meeting was frank and, as we've said for some time now, the lines of communication remain open.” As was reported yesterday, Boehner is set to leave for Ohio this weekend. Does he really leave? If so, then you won’t see anyone criticize Obama for playing any golf on Saturday or Sunday. One thing is clear: A lot of senators are starting to get antsy; Plan Bs for the cliff are making the rounds with more frequency. At this point, it does seem the two most REMOTE possibilities regarding the fiscal cliff are 1) doing nothing and 2) doing something big. Some patchwork punt continues to be the most likely outcome.

*** Jindal: GOP has been “stupid” on birth control: Turning to 2016 news, don’t miss this Wall Journal op-ed from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on birth control: "As a conservative Republican, I believe that we have been stupid to let the Democrats demagogue the contraceptives issue and pretend, during debates about health-care insurance, that Republicans are somehow against birth control. It's a disingenuous political argument they make. As an unapologetic pro-life Republican, I also believe that every adult (18 years old and over) who wants contraception should be able to purchase it." This is the second major op-ed from Jindal in the last few weeks. If you didn’t know before that Jindal wanted to be front-and-center in helping the GOP re-do its image, you know it now.

*** On “Meet” this Sunday: NBC’s David Gregory will interview Sens. Lindsey Graham and Dianne Feinstein on “Meet the Press.” And this week’s “Press Pass” is a sneak peak at the new eBook by Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Glenn Thrush on the end of the presidential election.

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