With their star power and moral authority, Barack Obama and his Secretary of State can achieve a lot, if — a big if — they stick together.
Call me a soft touch, I guess. I haven’t been wild about the idea of Hillary Clinton becoming Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. But on Monday morning seeing the two of them together, has almost made a flip-flopper out of me.
You had the two most important people, by far, in American politics. There isn’t a Republican who is remotely close to matching either in stature or popularity, in the United States or in the world. Seeing Obama and Clinton together made it easier to conjure a vision of some future moment in 2009 or 2011 when having the two most famous political figures on the planet insisting on whatever — a withdrawal from Iraq, a fresh seriousness about climate change, a new phase in the Middle East peace process — really could produce powerful results for America and the world.
I managed to conjure this image because in their words, both Obama and Clinton managed to convey — for now at least — that when Secretary Clinton speaks, she would be speaking for President Obama. This is a question I and many others had raised, and there’s a long history of secretaries of state who didn’t really have their president’s confidence, and who were understood around the world not to have any real juice with the White House they served (Colin Powell is the most recent example). But at Monday’s press conference, Obama — who has already mastered the presidential art of seeming to be saying something important while saying nothing at all — successfully communicated the idea that he and Clinton would be working closely together.
Calling himself “a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions,” Obama went as far as he needed to go in acknowledging that this national security team — which includes not only his former rival but probably two men who didn’t even vote for him — will have some disagreements. But he added that he would welcome those disagreements. He didn’t want people who would “get wrapped up in group-think” and offer “no dissenting views” — about as clear a shot at the current administration as he’s taken since his election. So he acknowledged that they will disagree but said that he will decide.
Clinton hit the right notes as well, but for appearance’s sake what mattered more than her specific words was the fact that she spoke at all. Last week, when Obama unveiled the four leading members of his economic team, they stood there mute. But this time Obama knew he’d have to let Clinton speak, and that meant letting everyone else speak. That’s what getting 18 million votes buys you.
Those votes are worth dwelling on, for reasons more substantive than that they permitted her a few moments before the microphone. Assuming she is confirmed, Clinton will be the first secretary of state in decades — certainly the first since America became the world’s leading superpower — to arrive at Foggy Bottom with a formidable domestic constituency of her own. What are the implications of this?
It seems to me there are three possible answers here. The first is minimal. Most of those 18 million ended up voting for Obama — about 85 per cent of them, according to exit polls — so it could be argued that the constituency that was once hers is now his.
The second is completely positive. Surely some portion of that 85 per cent voted for Obama a little grudgingly and would still rather have seen Clinton be president. Now that constituency will be more fully behind the new administration.
And third ... well, this is the risk for the president-elect. Suppose he and Clinton clash on an important matter. Even if his will is done (as one must assume it will be since he’ll be president), the fact that Clinton has millions of followers could create a natural and built-in opposition to him among a considerable percentage of Democrats.
I should quickly note the other members of the team. It is great politically that Obama persuaded Robert Gates to stay at the Pentagon, and James Jones seems like a terrific choice for national security adviser (these are the two who probably didn’t vote for him). Janet Napolitano, Susan Rice and Eric Holder have all been extremely talented and effective public servants, and offer living proof that people who happen not to be grey-haired white males can indeed happen to be the best qualified.
It is a strong team — ideologically diverse, bipartisan, representative of a broad range of policy interests and for the most part committed to the goals that candidate Obama told American voters he would pursue.
But its success will clearly hinge on whether Obama’s Clinton gamble works out. If it does, it will go down in history as one of the smartest rolls of the dice any president has made in the post-nuclear age. The two of them together, with their star power and moral authority in the world, can accomplish a lot. The operative word in that sentence is “together.” They were that yesterday. Let’s hope they stay that way. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008
(NOTE: Michael Tomasky is editor of Guardian America.)