As it was then and there, so it is here and now. At the start of the year, Clinton found herself deposited in a realm—Foggy Bottom in particular, the diplomatic orbit in general—just as cloistered and clubby, hidebound and testosterone-fueled, as the Senate. (And one, it should be noted, she never expected or particularly aspired to enter.) Her approach to the task has been nearly identical. She has steered clear of the press and put her nose to the grindstone, studying furiously and doggedly to get on top of her brief. She has delved deep into the managerial mess at the State Department left behind by her predecessors. She has quietly built relationships and alliances with Gates and national-security adviser Jim Jones. She has uncomplainingly—in fact, gladly, I’m told—delegated responsibility to megawatt envoys Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, and Dennis Ross.
To the outside world, all this laying low has made Clinton look like less of a player. But the reality is almost exactly the opposite. From the outset, Hillary recognized that she could only exercise influence inside the administration if she were trusted by Obama and the people close to him. And although the president himself and Emanuel never had much doubt that she could be a team player, many others in the Obamasphere were supremely skeptical. But no longer. “In terms of loyalty, discretion, and collegiality,” says a senior White House official, “she’s been everything we could have asked or hoped for.”
The unfolding debate over Afghanistan is maybe the most conspicuous example of Hillary’s adroitness at working the inside game. Compared with Joe Biden and General Stanley McChrystal, her position has been opaque. But now comes word that Clinton and Gates are lining up on the same side in favor of a middle course in the region—not the full-blown troop surge that the general advocates nor the bare-bones approach that the V.P. favors. By all accounts, the likeliest outcome is that Obama will wind up pursuing the Gates-Clinton split-the-difference strategy. And while no one will ever call it the Hillary doctrine, it will be the kind of quiet win that leads to greater internal power for her in the future.
Playing the inside game works to Clinton’s advantage in other ways as well. It’s no coincidence, I’d argue, that her popularity has sharply risen in these months when her profile has been lower, when she’s been perceived as selflessly working on behalf of her boss. Hillary’s greatest political vulnerability has always been the sense among many voters that she is ambition incarnate. That she’s forever shimmying up the greasy pole. That everything she does and says is all about her own advancement.
But now Obama has put her in the perfect position to play the good soldier. To say with (almost) a straight face that she’s looking forward to retirement, that her White House aspirations are behind her. That all she cares about is doing a good job and serving her new master. And as she does, her approval ratings seem to climb by the day.
Has Clinton seriously ruled out another presidential run? I have no idea. What I do know is that her statements on the matter are perfectly meaningless. In the old days, of course, going back on such unequivocal renouncements carried a high political price. But Obama—who renounced his own renouncement of any chance he would run for president in the space of nine months in 2006 and incurred no penalty—may have put an end to that convention. If he has, it may be yet another thing for which Hillary, by an irony, finds herself tossing a bouquet to her former rival, oh, around 2015.