Hillary, I owe you an apology.
No, not a Washington Apology of the “Regrettably, mistakes have been made” variety. A real apology.
Back in 2008, I was sure — absolutely, completely, utterly sure — that Barack Obama would make a better president than you would. With the benefit of hindsight, I now think I was wrong.
Perhaps not absolutely, completely, utterly wrong, but wrong all the same.
I fell in love with Barack Obama because of his book. (That’s “love” in the platonic, political sense, readers. Get your minds out of the gutter.) “Dreams From My Father” was a good book. It was nuanced, big-hearted, brave and painfully honest: all art, no artifice. It was, in other words, all the things American electoral politics is not.
I wanted a president like that. I wanted that so much, I convinced myself that Obama’s relative lack of Washington political experience didn’t matter. In fact, I convinced myself that his lack of experience was a plus: With only two years in the Senate, he was still uninfected by the Washington miasma of cynicism, falsehood, and pettiness.
You, Hillary, on the other hand? By 2008, you (or your ghostwriters) had produced several books, including “Dear Socks,” “Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets,” of which the less said the better, along with “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us” and “An Invitation to the White House,” a pictorial account of life as first lady.
It was all so sanitized. So studiously uninteresting. So full of carefully calibrated anecdotes designed to sound human without actually revealing anything. (“Mrs. Barak and I did not stay awake as late as our husbands did.”) It was so … Washington.
Your presidential campaign was more of the same. At the time, I was writing a weekly column for The Los Angeles Times, and I had some harsh words for you, Hillary: “[H]er policy platform offers more pablum than principle, more formula than inspiration.” I even chastised you for picking a particularly vapid Celine Dion track as your campaign’s theme song. “Hillary Clinton: Politics = Celine Dion: Music,” I wrote.
I’m sorry, Hillary. That was mean. No one, but no one, deserves to be compared to Celine Dion.
Meanwhile, I said lots of nice things about Barack Obama, a few of which I now blush to recall — though as a dutiful journalist I tried hard not to let my literary adulation overwhelm my judgment. “He’s not the messiah,” I noted sagely in an August 2008 column.
No, he is not.
Like many other once-ardent Obama supporters, I’ve spent the last five years with a mounting sensation of buyer’s remorse. “[I]f Obama puts into his foreign policy strategy one-tenth of the talent, innovation and discipline he put into his campaign,” I wrote after the 2008 election, “he’ll be able to make real headway on a range of critical issues.” But maybe that grueling campaign just wore him out. In the Obama White House, innovation became reactiveness, discipline became rigidity, and a tight inner circle of campaign aides and Chicago pals tried to micro-manage the entire executive branch.
It’s been painful to watch the team that ran such a brilliant campaign flail around in search of a strategy, bungle their relationship with Congress, botch rollout after rollout, and miss opportunity after opportunity.
I still think Obama’s a whole lot better than the other guys would have been — for all the disappointments, his administration has scored some solid and important achievements. But I’m no longer sure he’s better than the other gal would have been.
Here’s the irony, Hillary: Arguably, the very qualities that allowed Barack Obama to write an inspiring book like “Dreams From my Father” are some of the same qualities that have kept him from being an inspiring president.
Obama’s an introvert: Unlike your husband Bill, who draws energy from crowds and loves a good political brawl like other men love football, Obama’s clearly happiest within the small circle of people he knows and trusts. He likes to read and write and think, but he doesn’t much want to shake hands, curry favor with grandstanding congressmen, or sit through ceremonial meetings with foreign dignitaries.
Look at his tight body language; listen to the undertone of irritation in his voice. Barack Obama is a man who almost always looks and sounds like he’d prefer to be somewhere else. He’s a politician who hates politics.
On some level, I can’t blame him a bit. I’d hate it too. Then again, I didn’t ask millions of Americans to send me to the White House.
Hillary, I suspect that you don’t like politics any more than Obama does — but unlike Obama, you’ve schooled yourself to mix it up with the naturals. I still remember the Hillary of the early 1990s, with her unfashionable hair and her unscripted, impolitic comments. I liked that Hillary. But the right pilloried you and the press wasn’t much friendlier.
Yet inexplicably — and unlike Obama — you decided that you were going to learn how to be an effective politician, even if you hated every single second of it. You got knocked down and you just kept right on getting back up again. You survived Cookie-gate and Whitewater and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy and, well, let’s not go there.
You learned how to censor yourself. You got a stylist and a staff of loyal guard dogs; you developed a hard, polished protective shell. You ran for Senate, and charmed some of the same Republican senators who had once scorned you. You slogged away, getting political experience. You shook a million hands and smiled a big fake smile until your face looked like it might crack.
I didn’t like your polished shell, and I didn’t like your fake smile, but it’s 2014, and I’m ready to repent. Hillary, you did what you had to do to survive — and ultimately thrive — in a hostile political landscape. You learned how to work the levers of power, manage vast unwieldy executive branch agencies, and compromise, wheedle and trade — all things that Obama’s core team still seems to struggle with. Unlike Obama, who until recently led a fairly charmed political life, you had to learn, repeatedly, how to lose. Perhaps, in the end, that taught you how to win.
Hillary, I can’t say I’m a complete convert. I’d still like to see you take more political risks in public, even as I’ve reluctantly come to understand why you don’t. And I’m still troubled by the infighting that seems to dog your own inner circle, and the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” attitude exuded by many of your loyalists. I hope you will learn both from Obama’s mistakes and from your own: Without diversity, openness, humor, and a willingness to be challenged and to change, no team can succeed for long.
All the same, Hillary, I should have voted for you in 2008. If you run, I’ll vote for you in 2016. As a down payment on that promise, I’ve even started to read your latest book, “Hard Choices.”
Hillary, I won’t pretend it’s a scintillating read. You’ve offered us 635 pages of numbing detail, interlaced with political pieties (“I approached my work with confidence in our country’s enduring strength and purpose”) and faux-intimate revelations (“Michelle [Obama] and I bonded over the challenges of raising a family in the public eye”).
“Hard Choices” is a cautious book, a calculated balancing act that neither offends nor inspires. It’s certainly no “Dreams From My Father.” But it will, I think, get the job done — and in the end, that’s not so shabby, is it?
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as a counselor to the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a State Department senior adviser. This column originally appeared in Foreign Policy.