Hillary Clinton: Obama's 'frenemy' or inspired choice?

There has been a lot of speculation in the American media about the risk president-elect Barack Obama would take in naming Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state. Ignore that.

Appointing former rival as secretary of state could pay dividends

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton greet supporters at the end of an Oct. 28 rally in Orlando, Fla. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

She is going to take the job.

After some nervous back-and-forth, some hand-wringing over husband Bill — and some should-I or shouldn't-I conversations with friends and colleagues — it appears Hillary Clinton has decided to accept the top post at the U.S. State Department. All that's left is the formal announcement.

There has also been a lot of speculation in the American media about the risk president-elect Barack Obama would take in naming Clinton as his secretary of state. Ignore that.

There are those who talk about Clinton as a disruptive force, an ego and presence that could threaten an Obama presidency.

Take a recent Chicago Tribune front-page story with the headlines: "Will Clinton be Obama's frenemy of State? Her ambitions, not his goals, may guide her, analysts warn." The story goes on to say that "her future ambitions could affect her pursuit of the administration's goals."

Ignore that, too.

Bombast during campaign

The focus of many commentaries seems to be the conflict that may result between these two strong former competitors for the Democratic nomination. These stories revolve around the campaign rhetoric that arose during foreign policy debates — Obama floating the idea of talking to foreign enemies of the U.S. and Clinton calling such a move "irresponsible and frankly naïve."

Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton enter the stage for their Feb. 26 debate in Cleveland. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Clinton's campaign also ran the famous television ad that showed a phone ringing in the White House at 3 a.m. and asking who Americans want responding to the latest world crisis. The clear implication was that Obama was a risk.

Obama's folks came back with a memo ridiculing Clinton's claims to have been at the forefront of her husband's foreign policy outreach and saying she never answered any late-night telephone. And, they added: "Did you hear the one about ducking sniper fire?"

Clinton said she misspoke when giving that dramatic account — later contradicted by video footage — of her landing in Bosnia in 1996. It was an embarrassment that dogged her for several weeks.

Clinton also gave President George W. Bush her vote on the resolution authorizing the Iraq War. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, called it "a dumb war."

But there has been a lot of backtracking on campaign bombast and you can ignore the reporting on these conflicts as well.

A win-win situation?

The truth surrounding this appointment is much more simple, more direct and frankly, to this writer, more positive for all involved.

For Clinton, it is currently the best path open to power and influence. As a second-term senator from New York, she has won praise, but lacks critical seniority. She chairs no committee.

While she is everyone's choice as a partner on tough legislative efforts, she is not in a position of leadership in a legislative chamber that will be crowded with powerful Democrats.

As far as the future goes, Clinton is not likely to run again for president. Journalists should never say never and should certainly be sparing with political predictions. But unless things go wrong for Obama, the Democrats look to possibly settle in for at least two terms as the Republicans retool. The demographics of this year's election indicate the Democratic candidate in 2016 will be running with the support of a much younger party base, and Clinton will be nearly 70.

So a term or two as a successful secretary of state could be the ideal way to cap a truly remarkable public life.

As for Obama, the Clinton appointment sends another positive signal, reflecting this president-elect's enormous self-confidence. While she gets an unequalled opportunity on the world stage, he gets an emissary who is well known to those she will deal with.

He also gets a superbly capable politician — who ran him ragged during the primaries and won 18 million votes, many from people who didn't like his politics, his background or his colour. She brought many of those votes into his tent on election day.

There are caveats

It is hard to find a truly successful secretary of state who served a president weak in international affairs. Certainly in the modern era, two generally regarded as successful — Henry Kissinger and James Baker — served tough, experienced leaders. 

Henry Kissinger, left, and President Richard Nixon are shown after Kissinger was sworn is as secretary of state at the White House in September 1973. (Associated Press)

Whatever you think of Richard Nixon or George H.W. Bush, both were skilled in foreign policy. Their pairings were built on loyalty and consensus, at least in public.

It's true these matches were also based on close personal relationships not apparent between Obama and Clinton. But then again, the closeness between current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush did not improve a State Department legacy that is likely to be rated by historians as below average.

A secretary of state who steps out of line is unlikely to be successful — witness Colin Powell's attempts to forge a more moderate agenda for the Bush White House. He was buried by Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a complicit Rice, then Bush's national security adviser.

We mention all this, since Clinton has covered some of these bases in the negotiations leading up to her acceptance of the job.

Safeguards in place

Obama has given her the right to select her key staff and experts, avoiding the problems Powell faced when Bush and Cheney poisoned the well with appointments of neo-conservatives who proved troublesome and reported directly to Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Clinton has apparently asked for and been given assurances she will have direct access to the president without having to run the gauntlet of White House aides.

If it is true that retired marine Gen. James Jones, the former NATO Supreme Commander, will become Obama's national security adviser, then Clinton will be working with a leader of enormous reputation as a team player. The same can be said of Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who is still rumoured to be a holdover at the Obama White House.

So it comes down to the president-elect and the New York senator themselves.

Some suggest an enormous potential conflict between the two former rivals. But it could, just as easily, be an inspired choice that can pay enormous future dividends for Obama, for Clinton and for the country.