Why Obama Wants Hillary for His 'Team of Rivals'
To succeed at modern diplomacy, it helps to take the long view. As word trickled out that President-elect Barack Obama was considering Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, Clinton was on the phone with the President of Pakistan. Asif Ali Zardari was calling with a long-overdue thank-you. Back in 1998, when Zardari's late wife Benazir Bhutto was powerless and out of favor with the United States, the then First Lady had received her at the White House, over the objections of both the State Department and the National Security Council. Bhutto eventually regained her influence, and before her assassination last December, became an important U.S. ally. But she had never forgotten that act of graciousness, Zardari told Clinton on Nov. 14. "To be treated with such respect was very important."
As he wrapped up his second week as President-elect, it was clear that Obama was taking the long view in both diplomacy and politics. How else to explain the fact that he had all but offered the most prestigious job in his Cabinet to a woman whose foreign policy experience he once dismissed as consisting of having tea with ambassadors? Or that Clinton might accept an offer from a man whose national-security credentials, she once said, began and ended with "a speech he made in 2002"? Nowhere did Obama and Clinton attack each other more brutally last spring than on the question of who was best equipped to handle international relations in a dangerous world. That they could be on the brink of becoming partners in that endeavor is the most remarkable evidence yet that Obama is serious about his declared intention to follow another Illinois President's model in assembling a "team of rivals" to run his government, in what could be a sharp contrast with the past 40 years of American Presidents. "I've been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln," Obama told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes. "There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was President, that I just find very helpful." (See pictures from Voting Day).
And a shrewdness as well. The surprising proffer to Clinton came the same week that Obama sat down with John McCain in Chicago and helped engineer a commutation for Senator Joe Lieberman, who had backed McCain in the election and faced possibly being stripped of his committee chairmanship. The general amnesty campaign, part of a promise to change the way Washington works, impressed some longtime partisans. "It's brilliant," says a senior Republican Party official. "My hat is totally off to the guy." Viewed more cynically, bringing Clinton into the tent could co-opt a potential adversary in 2012 and put a leash on her globetrotting husband, who has a propensity for foreign policy freelancing. Which raises a question: Would this move, if it happens, be just the first manifestation of that new kind of politics that Obama was promising in his presidential campaign? Or proof that he understands the oldest kind all too well? (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)
However smart it might ultimately prove to be, the Clinton offer is likely to induce grumbling among some Obama loyalists. The job Obama dangled in front of Clinton has excited a frenzy of speculation and leaking — exactly the kind of thing the no-drama Obama operation did not tolerate during the presidential campaign. And coming amid word that Obama is eyeing an array of former Clinton officials — including former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder for the top job at Justice — even Democrats began to ask how much change Obama really represents. "What were the last two years all about?" asks one exasperated party strategist. "The restoration of the Clintons?"
But as with everything involving the Clintons, restoration is complicated. Negotiating Bill Clinton's portfolio has been one sticking point. The conundrum was on display on Nov. 16 even as Bill hailed his wife's potential to be "really great as a Secretary of State." He made that comment while giving a paid speech for the National Bank of Kuwait, which is the kind of thing for which he earned more than $10 million last year alone. Beyond his six-figure speaking fees, there are also a myriad of undisclosed contributions to the former President's far-flung charitable endeavors and to his presidential library, many of which have come from foreign interests that his wife would be dealing with as Secretary of State.
Team Clinton dismissed suggestions that there was anything in his donor files that could get in the way of her confirmation. As Bill told the Chronicle of Philanthropy in September, "The only reason I didn't want to [disclose] the library donors is that no previous President had. I suppose if Hillary were elected President, or maybe even if she had been nominated, we would have had to go back to the donors and at least disclose everyone that didn't object to it. But I wouldn't have any objection to it." (See pictures of Clinton and Obama battling in Pennsylvania.)
In negotiations with the Obama transition team, the Wall Street Journal first reported, the Clintons have offered to disclose the identities of all future donors to Bill's charitable activities, as well as givers of major past contributions. (What constitutes "major" is still under discussion, though a source involved in the conversation tells TIME that the figure is likely to be $1 million or more.) Trickier to manage is the role the former President would play going forward. Should his wife become the country's top diplomat, President No. 42 would probably be required to get clearance from both the White House counsel's office and the State Department's ethics boss before accepting future donations or giving paid speeches. (See pictures of Hillary Clinton meeting Michelle Obama.)
But just as worrisome as any financial arrangements would be Bill Clinton's ongoing relationships with world leaders and his predilection for offering advice — as he did in 2006, when Dubai sought help in a controversial attempt to acquire six terminals in U.S. ports. (Hillary, a leader in the effort to block the deal that she called an "unacceptable risk" to national security, later said she was unaware that Bill had been coaching the other side.) Ex-Presidents always have that potential; Jimmy Carter has complicated life for every President since he left office. But should Hillary get the job, it might prove difficult to distinguish whether her husband was speaking on the Obama Administration's behalf.
What's in it for Hillary? Her allies point out that the move would not be without its negatives. Friends like New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter are counseling her not to take the job. They say she would be giving up important work in the Senate, particularly on the health-care-reform cause that is her passion. Others warn that her job description at Foggy Bottom would mean she'd lose her own voice. Against that, enthusiasts for the move point out, Clinton is smart, a fast and thorough study, and tough as nails. And with Obama focused on the economy, she could have a big role in repairing the U.S.'s image overseas. Says an Obama adviser who has not always been a Clinton fan: "She's a great team player."
And the harder truth is that Clinton's options as a Senator are limited, at least in the immediate future. In that chamber, she is just one of many presidential also-rans and a relatively junior member of an institution where power and advancement require seniority. Shortly after the election, she lobbied Health Committee chairman Edward Kennedy and majority leader Harry Reid to create a health-reform subcommittee for her to chair and was turned down. Her consolation prize — to head one of three ad hoc task forces that Kennedy has created — would not allow her to put much of a stamp of her own on any final legislation that emerges. And if there's anything a First Lady who became a Senator would understand, it's that opportunities don't always come to those who wait for them.
— With reporting by James Carney, Michael Duffy and Michael Weisskopf / Washington