Obama and Clinton: Work it Out
by Strummerson, Sat Jul 18, 2009 at 11:04:14 PM EDT
Although it's impossible to write anything on this subject without re-igniting the bonfire of primary cliches, any democrat concerned with foreign policy must be attentive to the relationship between the President and Secretary of State. And it appears to me that something is amiss, particularly from the Oval Office side of things. I, like many who supported Obama over Clinton for President, voiced enthusiastic support for Clinton's appointment as Secretary of State, despite recognizing that Obama would be losing a key player in the Senate on domestic issues such as health care reform.
Some of us thought the trade-off worth it due to her proximity to the Northern Ireland process that resulted in the Good Friday agreement. A historical breakthrough that has proven a stable and productive framework, it represents a signal post-war foreign policy triumphs. Some thought this would be particularly helpful, together with her established credibility with both Israeli and Palestinian constituencies, in moving things along here (I write from Jerusalem at the moment). When Obama added George Mitchell to the team, things looked even stronger. Personally, I thought HRC's appointment a fabulous idea because of her signature "Women's Rights are Human Rights" moment in Beijing. Clinton as Secretary of State is in an unprecedented position to address the situation of women and girls around the world, an end in itself but also crucial for processes of liberalization and democratization we should be supporting.
Yet as the health care debate is heating up, the trade-off is looking bad. For unless HRC is fulfilling a quiet coordinated role on foreign policy, Obama seems to have relegated one of his most talented players to a bench role. As in the general election campaign, with an ability she had already demonstrated in the Senate, HRC has been a "loyal soldier" and impeccable "team player." But maybe a little too much of one.
Now a piece by Gregor Peter Schmitz, Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel, indicates that Clinton may be trying to assert herself, only to be stymied by her boss. In a recent speech to The Council on Foreign Relations, six months into her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton presented her vision, a comprehensive foreign policy framework for the Obama administration she serves. According to Schmitz:
Speaking for 34 minutes, Clinton covered a broad swath of terrain, from Iran, to the fight against weapons of mass destruction, dialogue with the Arab world, more development aid and "smart power." America should use its power decisively, but also sensibly, in conjunction with its partners, Clinton explained. "We need a new mindset about how America will use its power," she said.
It was a comprehensive foreign policy manifesto, perfectly delivered. The president couldn't have done it better.
Unfortunately, few of us even knew it was happening. Clinton was upstaged by three factors:
A cursory flick through the cable channels during her speech showed live images of a press conference about the murder of the parents of 17 children. Other networks were reporting on the confirmation hearings at the Senate for Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. Even worse, there was President Obama, who was appearing before cameras at almost the exact same time. He had decided that now was the perfect time to talk about his plans for health care reform, surrounded by nurses in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Now, one of these was no one's fault, one Clinton's, and one (the most worrying) was Obama's. A sensational murder is too much temptation for our sensationalist news media culture. Clinton herself erred in speaking during the Sotomayor hearings. They were almost over. She had already waited six months. This seems like a blunder from her side. But the question is whether Obama tried to block her. According to Schmitz:
The president's speech was announced at short notice. Something like that needs be agreed upon beforehand, complained one Washington insider. Or maybe it was completely deliberate.
If Obama did not intend to employ Clinton's talents at the State Department, he would have done better to leave her in the Senate where she would have been effective either as a central advocate for his health care proposals or to give him cover from the left flank. Given Kennedy's health, she likely would have filled an invaluable role. Whether intentionally or not, Obama has taken a key ally out of this fight and is now hobbling a potentially effective Secretary of State who already has international standing. It's time for them to work this out.