The Closest of Frenemies

Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

It wasn’t a done deal when these words were written, but there’s an extremely good chance that by the time you read them, Barack Obama will either have named or be on the verge of naming Hillary Clinton his secretary of State. The job would seem to be hers if she desires it, with her spouse vowing to do “whatever they want” to eliminate potential conflicts of interest posed by his promiscuous globe-trotting and buckraking. Although I’m told by people close to Hillary that she’s ambivalent about exiting the Senate, she craves a new challenge and sees a grand one in being America’s ambassador to the world at this hinge-of-history moment. And, hey, let’s be blunt: Were the idea, having coming this far and become this public, to fall apart now, the ensuing humiliation would be grievous and mutual for Obama and Clinton. Too grievous and too mutual, that is, for them to let it happen.

So it appears that we’re about to embark on a new chapter in the Obama-Clinton saga. Motivating the characters is a blend of cold-eyed calculation and gauzy idealism; selfishness and selflessness; the good, the bad, and the ugly—all the stuff that’s made the drama in which they have co-starred as operatic, twisted, and riveting as any in modern political history. What is different now is where Obama and Clinton might be headed: toward a kind of reconciliation that eluded them even after the hatchets were supposedly buried once their nomination fight was over.

No one disputes that the implications of this putative development are huge: for Obama and the Clintons, for foreign and domestic affairs. And opinions differ wildly over whether the pairing would be a stroke of genius or a match made in hell. But what strikes me as most interesting about it—along with the other appointments Obama has made so far—is what it suggests about the president-elect, from his conception of his embryonic administration to the size and contours of his ego.

The sheer improbability of the thing is striking, too, of course. All the happy-pappy posturing of the general election—the emphatic endorsements, the labored “unity” in Denver, the energetic stumping by Hillary for Barack, the two-way tongue bath between 42 and the soon-to-be 44 at a rally in Florida in the campaign’s final week—did little to alleviate the bedrock enmity between the two sides. The Clintons continued to regard Obama as a featherweight, a phony, a usurper. Obama neither liked nor trusted nor thought he needed Hill or Bill; he bridled at their apparent insistence that he kiss their rings.

For some, such as Tom Friedman, who argues that an “airtight relationship” is “required for effective diplomacy,” the sour Obama-Clinton history is reason to worry that installing Hillary in Foggy Bottom would be a one-way ticket to disasterville. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius frets over “subcontracting foreign policy” to a “big, hungry, needy” figure whose visibility would make quiet statecraft “almost impossible.” David Broder is nervous about the presence of the Maximum Canine—“Foreign leaders would inevitably see Bill Clinton as an alternative route toward influencing American policy”—and even more so about Hillary “carving out an independently based foreign policy.” Obama, writes Broder, “needs an agent, not an author.”

But for Obama and his inner circle—notably Rahm Emanuel, his new chief of staff, whose fingerprints are all over the Clinton gambit—Hillary brings an array of strengths to the table, and many of what critics see as her problematic qualities can be viewed instead as assets. Her existing relationships with world leaders and her global star power would allow her to walk into foreign capitals and deal with the president or prime minister on level footing. And in the face of a cratering economy likely to consume the first year (or more) of Obama’s term, handing off the foreign-policy legwork to a savvy, tough, high-profile surrogate with roundly acknowledged expertise on the relevant issues holds no small appeal.

Then there are the more subtle advantages to picking Hillary. Foreign policy is prone to internecine conflict in any administration, with the secretaries of State and Defense, the national-security adviser, and often the vice-president all jockeying for position. And Obama’s regime—with Joe Biden in the building and Robert Gates likely to remain atop the Pentagon—will be no exception. But Clinton is much closer to Biden than most people realize; that campaign gaffe of his about her making a better V.P. than him was more like a Freudian slip. And Gates, like many Republicans, is said to respect Hillary immensely; indeed, no Democrat is regarded more highly by the opposition and the generals.

Little of this, it should be noted, is true of the other shortlist candidates to run State. John Kerry and Bill Richardson are both fine men, qualified on paper for the job. But Senator Pompous has long had an intensely competitive relationship with Biden (“They’re like brothers—in every sense,” reports a Biden confidant) and is unbeloved by the GOP. And does anyone really think that Governor Doofus (or, if you prefer James Carville’s formulation, Governor Judas) possesses anything close to Clinton’s candlepower? Or gonads, for that matter? You can bet your last dollar that Emanuel, for one, does not.

Finally, there’s the Machiavellian angle: Obama playing the prince by pulling the old king and queen close. As Dee Dee Myers observed, her former boss is sure to cause Obama heartburn whether he is in the huddle or on the sidelines, musing about the new president’s (inevitable) missteps. “The question is not how to keep him at arm’s length,” she blogged, “but rather how best to harness his prodigious talent in service of shared goals, rather than political mischief.” The odds of doing that—and, incidentally, banishing any stray fantasies of a nomination challenge in 2012 from HRC’s mind—go up by putting his wife on Team Obama.

The obvious question is why Hillary would do it. What’s she thinking? What’s her game? No doubt part of the reason her people began leaking word that she’s not certain she wants the gig was to cushion the blow in case the Bubba vet turned ugly. But one person who knows her well told me she was genuinely torn. “She likes the Senate, likes working on a wider range of issues, likes that she’s answerable to herself,” this person said. Did the thought of Obama’s being her boss give her pause? “A lot of ground has been made up in the relationship. She’s flattered by this.” Did she feel like it was handled well? Or that with the leaks and the delay, she was left twisting in the wind? “Not at all. She’s impressed that he did it despite knowing it would be controversial. It says that he really wants her.”

The truth is that Clinton has been sounding out friends of late about what she might do next. She likes the Senate, sure, but she isn’t wedded to it. Many around her believe she has her eye on 2016, when she’ll turn 69—three years younger than John McCain is now. Secretary of State isn’t the optimal launching pad for a White House run, but then neither is the Senate. Being in Foggy Bottom would spare Clinton four (or eight) years of politically sensitive votes. And both the glamour and the gravitas factors would be greater, a rare combination.

Assuming that Clinton and Obama get to yes, Eric Holder is a go for attorney general, and the Gates assumption holds, the upper echelon of Obama’s Cabinet will be nearly full: only one of the big four, Treasury, remains an unleaked mystery. The Clinton choice matters here. With Obama already catching flak from his base for being too Clinton-centric, Hillary at State probably reduces Larry Summers’s chances of winding up at Treasury. The more likely pick seems to be Jon Corzine, whose stock has risen despite some mildly hairy vetting issues, as Obama transition officials have come to think that public-communications skills are key to the job in a time of economic chaos. (“See Hank Paulson? That’s what we don’t want,” says one person involved in the transition.)

So what do all these and Obama’s other appointments tell us? First, that the “team of rivals” meme is vastly overdone. Maybe Obama will appoint one more Republican (Chuck Hagel as U.N. ambassador?), but by and large his administration will be filled with politically like-minded folk. His White House will be chockablock with players (David Axelrod, Pete Rouse, Valerie Jarrett, Jim Messina) central to his campaign, his Cabinet heavy with elected officials (former senator Tom Daschle for Health and Human Services, Arizona governor Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius for Labor) who endorsed him early in the primaries.

The thread that binds these names together isn’t ideology but a devotion to a kind of hard-nosed, even ruthless pragmatism. Moreover, Obama’s appointments to critical posts reflect an inclination toward people with deep institutional expertise and major-league political chops, who can effectively drive or implement an agenda. Picking Emanuel was all about mastering Congress, Daschle about actually passing health-care reform (as opposed to think-tanking the perfect, elegant policy solution, à la the Clinton effort in 1993–94). Keeping Gates is about getting out of Iraq without letting the country descend into chaos. The putative Clinton pick carries hints of a similar raison d’être. You can easily imagine Obama telling Hillary: A deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians—go bring that sucker home.

But choosing Hillary demonstrates more than merely get-her-done, mission-driven hardheadedness. It demonstrates that Obama has finally learned the political power of magnanimity—or least the perception thereof. It demonstrates strength, whereas selecting her as his running mate would have displayed the opposite (the stories would all have been about how he did it because he had no choice). And it demonstrates a level of self-confidence remarkable even in someone who just won the presidency. One of the cardinal rules of the Beltway is that you never appoint a subordinate who, for all practical purposes, can’t be fired. Colin Powell was very nearly such an appointment, and George W. Bush came to regret it. Hillary Clinton would be another. Obama is wagering that Clinton will do his bidding and not pursue her own agenda because she will see that her future—in electoral politics, in how she’s treated in the history books—will be bound up with his success. He’s not just bringing her inside the tent; he is making her a tent-pole. This strategy is either shrewd or delusional. But timid it is not.


The Closest of Frenemies