Why Obama Wants Hillary for His ‘Team of Rivals’

November 20, 2008

whillaryTo 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?”

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