9.16.2009

The Clinton conundrum

One of the ironies of the Obama administration has been that I find myself caught in the position I held when W. was elected -- having little faith that the president will come to much, but having high hopes for the Secretary of State. Colin Powell was, to my mind, the best of the original Bush 2000 cabinet; and I thought that Condoleezza Rice was an excellent replacement. Just so with my expectations of the Obama presidency -- I expected great things from Secretary Clinton.

But the last six months have seen little of Clinton, despite a number of major foreign policy issues. Indeed, her centerpiece program focuses on women's equality -- a fine goal, to be sure, but hardly one of the central policy issues of the day, and one perhaps best left for the raft of NGOs and development organizations to spearhead with the State Department's support. Given her involvement in Bill's administration, and her surely impeccable connections, I'm amazed she has not begun a massive initiative in the Middle East, and especially Israel. Nor has she brought her resolve to bear on the situations in Iran or North Korea, where her steely negotiating skills would surely move events forward. And with calls lately to, if not end the department altogether, at least drastically overhaul it, one gets the sense that Clinton is mired.

I'd like to propose two reasons for this apparent inability for the normally zealous Clinton to really get going: living in Obama's shadow, and a desire to be elsewhere. They're actually fairly tied together, but I'll tackle them in order.

The smash-mouth nature of the Democratic primary makes the relationship between the Obama and Clinton one more saddled with backstory than most other President-State Secretary relationships -- she's not a wise adviser to a newcomer, as Powell was to W., nor is she an old policy hand to an engaged president. She's a former rival to a president with major domestic issues that need to be tackled. As such, major negotiations on her part in the major areas of difficulty take shine off Obama. Were she to score a few major victories while Obama continues to muddle through bailouts that don't work and a sticky and unpopular health care reform package, there would be a major popularity imbalance between the two. I'm hardly suggesting Obama wants Clinton to fail -- but I suspect he's glad she's taking a backseat, promoting a blasé, feel-good liberal centerpiece program. Nor am I suggesting she doesn't believe in what she's pushing -- I do believe that raising the status of women in developing countries will have tremendous, and beneficial, impacts on the furthering of democracy and the economy of those countries (I experienced this firsthand in Azerbaijan, and am all for it). It's a good feminist program to boot, clearly a passion for her. But I wouldn't be surprised at all to hear she's being reined in somewhat.

The competitor-friends relationship also must have had an impact on Clinton's decision to take the post in the first place. Clinton, like Bill, is a political animal. As good as she may be as Secretary of State, and as much potential as I think she has in that position, she thrives in elected politics, not the wonkiness of Foggy Bottom. For the sake of the party, of showing that the bygones of the campaign truly were bygones, she had to accept the position offered by Obama. She had to play nice; had she gone her own way, real divisions would have lingered much longer among Democrats. She lost gracefully, and I wonder if she isn't biding her time at State, working on a project that interests her but not making a major name for herself, until she can get "back in the game."