President-elect Barack Obama´s selection last week of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as his secretary of state came as no surprise. After all, both camps were publicly wrestling for weeks in negotiations over what to do about everything from her husband´s secret fundraisers to key placements of her staff. I often found myself smirking at how much better President Bush was interacting with the incoming administration than the Clintons.
If the past is prologue, this selection has all the makings of a major executive headache for the Obama administration. Before the announcement was even made, the one overlooked for vice president was seeking assurances that she would have the kind of access to the president that she needs. Translated: When that phone rings at 3 a.m., even if I want to discuss the geopolitical impact of Belize, you better pick up! That statement would be funny if it weren´t so close to being accurate.
The last time I checked, a Cabinet official was put in place to execute the will of the chief executive –- in this case, the ambassador-in-chief. If Mrs. Clinton understood the role before it was offered to her, then why was any of this horse-trading necessary? I didn´t hear any reports of Bill Richardson demanding the incoming president would attend all of the job fairs he plans to hold across the nation to get Americans back to work. That´s because he didn´t. And the larger lesson here is that a Cabinet position is never about one individual. As tempting as it is for a new president to elevate high-profile figures in his ranks, too often personalities and egos get in the way. When you put ambition before ideas, the whole country loses.
Mrs. Clinton is a headstrong individual. She proved that on the campaign trail. Newsweek even featured her on its Jan. 21 cover peddling a similar theme, quoting the maven saying, “I have found my voice.” Indeed, she has. It was the same voice that criticized then-candidate Obama on multiple foreign-policy issues, not to mention her hawkish support of the war. Does anyone in the incoming Obama White House now honestly expect her to silence that inner monologue that so readily affirms she´s right 110 percent of the time?
The position of secretary of state is not a consolation prize. Mrs. Clinton certainly won´t treat it that way. Her antics and brokering of deals on how many times she gets to stand with Mr. Obama have signaled the beginnings of a rogue element. Does she see her powerful position as some shadow Oval Office when it comes to international diplomacy? I sure hope not. And while we´re on the subject, has anyone seen Joe Biden lately? I thought he was the foreign-policy heavyweight on this ticket?
Don´t misunderstand; my concerns surrounding this relationship are grounded not in the rapport between the two, but in the shared respect. One side has it, while I fear the other has yet to fully express it. And assuming that a Secretary Clinton will publicly express her support for the president´s final decisions when the private exchanges are through, you still have to contend with the bickering at the staff level, and we know how vicious those can get. Similar shenanigans occurred with her own nomination and vetting, and that means it could happen again.
Worried about Bill Clinton? Don´t be. After all of his escapades, he understands the importance of letting his better half shine and soak up the limelight. You can bet he´ll mind his manners, and probably even enjoy himself on the taxpayer´s dime again.
I´ve said before that Hillary Clinton will be a strong voice for restoring America to its rightful place in the world, as the talking point goes. But in order to elicit that achievement from her camp, I fear the incoming Obama White House will be forced to engage in hours upon hours of groveling and hand-holding down in Foggy Bottom. This is not the Department of Agriculture, where a federal department has sole jurisdiction of an issue (or close to it). America´s national security and diplomatic functions are a complex network of multiple layers. Does anyone think for a second that a Secretary Clinton will quietly acquiesce to decisions out of OMB, or the NSA, for that matter? After all, they both play important, if not low-profile, roles in foreign policy.
Stewardship is the operative word here. A Secretary Clinton will have to run a diplomatic corps that numbers in the tens of thousands throughout the world. That work can be both tedious and mind-numbing; just ask Colin Powell. While globe-trotting is certainly the most glamorous aspect of her job, it´s not the most important. This position is bureaucracy, defined. I don´t see Mrs. Clinton embracing those elements wholeheartedly. And you definitely can´t hand those “mundane” tasks off to subordinates.
I believe that deep down Mrs. Clinton knows this as well. Why else would she be pre-determining how and when she can communicate with the president? Those are demands made on her terms, not Mr. Obama´s, and for that reason alone, I would be gravely concerned.
Armstrong Williams’ column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.