After Clinton left the White House, these second-generation Democrats argued — in books, op-eds and study groups — that the party should recognize the continuing relevance of military power. “Force should never be used as a first choice, but in some cases it may need to be used sooner rather than later, particularly when innocent lives are at stake or when grave dangers are emerging,” wrote several prominent officials from the Clinton administration in a study group called the Phoenix Initiative.
When he came to the White House, Obama needed experienced people to fill foreign policy jobs, and the Clinton veterans were ready and waiting. Several returned to office under Obama, including Tom Donilon, now national security adviser; Antony Blinken, the vice president’s top foreign policy adviser; Michele Flournoy, Obama’s former undersecretary of defense; Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia; and James Steinberg, the former deputy secretary of state.
Over his years in office, Obama has evolved and now is running for reelection as something of a Hard Power Democrat, highlighting his prowess in the use of force. Still, generational differences persist between the Obamians and the Clinton alums. For example, Bill Clinton and his secretary of state Madeleine Albright spoke of America as the “indispensable nation.” As secretary of state under Obama, Hillary Clinton has offered similar themes. “The United States can, must and will lead in this new century,” she said in a 2010 speech.
But when Obama’s younger aides talk about America’s role in the world, there is a subtle recognition that its post-World War II dominance may not last forever. “We’re not trying to preside over America’s decline,” deputy national security adviser and Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes observed in an interview. “What we’re trying to do is to get America another 50 years as leader.”
The distance between the Obamians and the post-Vietnam generation endures, too. In theory, the Vietnam experience is relevant to some of the problems the Obama administration confronts — for example, in negotiating with the Taliban while seeking to withdraw forces from Afghanistan.
But on the whole, the Obama Democrats don’t want to think about Vietnam. It was the preoccupation of an earlier generation, one that they see as having dominated American foreign policy for too long.
Rice recalled her exasperation when she worked for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. “What frustrated me about the 2004 campaign was, there we were, relitigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry — you know, ‘Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?’ ” she said. “And I’m thinking, ‘What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?’ ”
James Mann is author in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This article is adapted from his new book, “The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power.”
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