December 4, 2008

Secretary Clinton in an Obama Cabinet

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I have to admit when I heard the possibility of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State I thought it was a ridiculous choice. Here’s Senator Clinton, who in the primary bragged about “coming under gunfire” in Bosnia and whose “deep” foreign policy experience included tea with such foreign leaders as President Obama’s foreign policy chief. But then I thought about it a little more and realized that it is a shrewd political choice that aims to neutralize the Clintons and their followers within the Democratic Party.

It goes without saying that Senator Clinton is incredibly able and an excellent politician and that by choosing her, Obama has eliminated the Clintons as a threat to his administration. Besides the abilities that she brings to the office, her placement within the administration gives her (and by extension Bill) real interests in seeing Obama succeed. As the saying goes, as Secretary of State, Clinton would be more interested in “pissing out of the tent.” If she were remain in the Senate, she may have an incentive to “piss into the tent” in order to further her own career. It would also give Clinton the opportunity to continue building her resume for a future run at the Presidency (just imagine a Clinton settlement to Israel-Palestine issue, or something of that nature). Clinton would have the opportunity to win over her skeptics in the Democratic Party and among Americans in general by giving her a position with high profile and high margins for success (or failure), but also one that involves being a team player. By inviting his biggest (Democratic) rival into the cabinet, Obama has put action behind his promise of a “team of rivals” administration.

Beyond the sheer politics of a Clinton pick, I think that it fits into Obama’s negotiating strategy. We have seen it already with the choice of Biden for VP and Emmanuel for Chief of Staff. When Obama has “attack dogs” as his chief advisers, he gets to play the nice guy. With Clinton as Secretary of State, a similar dynamic of “good cop, bad cop” can emerge in U.S. negotiations with the world. Such a dynamic can play into U.S. policy interests by forcing concessions from foreign leaders so as to prevent President Obama from appearing to cater to foreign interests. So although Obama may meet with leaders we dislike, they’ll also have to meet with Secretary Clinton first, and we all should be better for it.