Barack Obama’s serious flirtation with his one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, over the post of secretary of State has been welcomed by everyone from Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton as an effective, grand gesture by the president-elect.
It’s not playing quite as well, however, in some precincts of Obamaland. From his supporters on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, to campaign aides of the soon-to-be commander-in-chief, there’s a sense of ambivalence about giving a top political plum to a woman they spent 18 months hammering as the compromised standard-bearer of an era that deserves to be forgotten.
“These are people who believe in this stuff more than Barack himself does,” said a Democrat close to Obama’s campaign. “These guys didn’t put together a campaign in order to turn the government over to the Clintons.”
An overlooked theme in Obama’s primary victory was his belief that the Clinton legacy was not, as the Clintons imagined, a pure political positive. The Obama campaign had no compunctions about poking holes in that legacy and even sent out mailings stressing the downside of the last “8 years of the Clintons” – enraging the former president in particular.
And the clearest opposition to the Clinton appointment comes from Obama’s backers on the left of his own party, whose initial support for him was motivated in part by a distaste for the Clinton dynasty, and who now view her reemergence with some dismay.
“There’s always a risk of a Cabinet member freelancing and that risk is enhanced by the fact that Hillary has her own public and her own celebrity and that she comes attached to Bill,” said Robert Kuttner, a Clinton critic and former American Prospect editor whose new book, Obama’s Challenge, implores the president-elect to adopt an expansive liberal agenda. “The other question is the old rule – never hire somebody you can’t fire. What happens if her views and his views don’t mesh?”
“The silver lining, for those of us who are skeptical, is that it drastically limits the number of other Clinton administration alums that he can appoint, and that’s a blessing,” Kuttner said.
Kuttner hastened to add that Clinton is “very smart” and capable, and that her appointment would be “greeted very well worldwide. And other Democratic foreign policy thinkers who are eager to work in, or with, the Obama administration declined to comment on the record, though they noted that foreign policy was an area that marked some of the deepest disagreements between Clinton and Obama.
Some key Obama-Clinton differences: Whether to meet face-to-face with leaders of hostile regimes (he was more open to the idea than she was) and her vote to authorize the war in Iraq.
“The specific policy area at issue seems to be one in which the two of them aren’t all that well-aligned,” wrote the liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias.
On Capitol Hill, however, even some of the left’s most normally unshrinking violets publicly backed a plan that appears to be almost a fait accompli.
“Sen. Clinton is one of the brightest people in Congress and she would be an excellent choice,” Vermont’s independent senator, Bernie Sanders, told Politico through a spokesman.
Inside the campaign, a prominent Democrat said, Obama’s decision was also greeted with ambivalence – though his aides have, as usual, moved into a united front in public on the topic.
During the primary, top aides like David Plouffe and Robert Gibbs developed a particular distaste for all things Clinton, one that filtered down through the campaign. So the transition from viewing Hillary Clinton as a relic of a drama-filled Democratic past to the top choice to run the foreign policy of an Obama administration has been difficult for some campaign veterans, to say the least.
The wisdom of an Obama/Clinton team of rivals seems to be viewed with even more skepticism by the campaign’s rank and file. One Obama insider said that while Obama’s senior staff has come around to acknowledging the power of a Clinton choice, supporters have not.
“During the campaign there was a lot of agreement and correspondence about how the grassroots felt about the Clintons and how the Obama leadership felt,” he said. “There’s a bit of a divergence now. They’re confused that the guy they elected . . . because we need to go in a different direction on the world stage” might choose a secretary of state with whom he had some of his sharpest foreign policy disagreements during the primary campaign.
Obama’s blog network on My.BarackObama.com has been buzzing with both sides of the argument since hints emerged last week of a surprise Clinton choice. A representative heading: “no hillary for secretary of state why???”
More common inside Obama’s circle is a grasp of the effective politics, and a sense that she’d be good at the job – though that somewhat grudging acknowledgment doesn’t extend to a particularly warm embrace of the defeated primary candidate.
“I can’t stand her – but I think she’s a great choice,” said another Obama insider.
Clinton seems poised to take the job, as both sides have steadily shared with reporters the details of an unusually – for Obama – public process. Democrats on both sides said that the remaining obstacle is working out the details of an arrangement that would allow the former president to maintain a public role while ending his dealings with foreign governments and his foundation’s financial transactions with public and private foreign policy players.
Members of Clinton’s circle say they’ve felt little resistance from Obama’s aides as the two sides work out the details of what could one of the great political deals of the century, if something short of a love affair.
“They are being very matter of fact about removing the obstacles,” said a Democrat close to Clinton. “The attitude is, ‘Our boss wants us to work this out, so lets work it out.'” A former Clinton aide said Clinton appears likely to accept the job if the details of her husband’s future can be resolved, and that the discussions of how exactly to restructure Bill Clinton’s charitable ventures doesn’t appear to pose a substantial obstacle, though another Democrat said she’s said Clinton is personally “conflicted.”
One person who apparently has shown no ambivalence: Obama. “It’s not like he hedged his bets in conversation with her,” said a person involved in the process. While both sides say the situation remains fluid, this person said Obama was quite direct: “He offered her the job.”