So why is trial ballooning top cabinet appointees such a bad idea? First, it is almost entirely unnecessary. Top cabinet appointees are very rarely rejected. As Josh Marshall noted over at Talking Points Memo, only nine cabinet appointees have been defeated in U.S. history, and there has not been a major national security cabinet appointee voted down since John Tower was nominated for defense secretary under George H.W. Bush. It just doesn't make any sense for twice-elected Barack Obama, or any other president for the matter, to give outside groups an extra chance to defeat a nominee outside of the confirmation process.
Trial ballooning nominees is especially noxious because it leaves the official whose name has been floated in no-man's land. An official nominee has the full force of the administration behind him or her. Agencies work Capitol Hill, communication experts are mobilized, and outside groups rally to their defense. A trial balloonee gets none of that. Would interagency groups have developed a far better and far faster response to Susan Rice's role in the response to Benghazi had she been the official nominee? Without a doubt.
Someone like Rice did not even get to fight back, and sympathetic groups largely stayed on the sidelines because they did not know what the administration's ultimate decision would be. Groups like the National Organization for Women came out in support of Rice when her name was first floated, but it never felt like they were in full war-room mode given that she was not yet officially the president's choice.
Look how quickly the ground shifted once Hagel went from balloon to nominee. Senate Democrats lined up behind him. Outside advocacy groups, including powerful ones like AIPAC, made clear they did not want to step into the fight. Opposition that had seemed fearful suddenly started to seem flimsy. Confirmation is certainly not a done deal, but opponents also realize that they will have to invest significant political capital if they want to derail Hagel.
Trial ballooning invites every form of character assassination because it gives opponents cost-free opportunities to snipe at the would-be nominee. If Obama thinks Rice or Hagel is the right candidate, he should nominate them -- and be prepared to fight for their confirmation. Floating policy proposals may provide an administration real political cover, but when a potential nominee gets shot down, the administration looks weaker, not stronger -- thus obviating the point of a trial balloon in the first place.
In an era when we routinely lament the unwillingness of many Americans to step up to public service, we should probably avoid hanging those already in public life out to dry. The rooster, sheep, and duck that the Montgolfiere brothers sent aloft in their balloon? All three survived. Susan Rice was less lucky.