By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is among the top contenders to become secretary of state in Barack Obama's administration, officials familiar with the selection process said, part of what appears to be an effort by the incoming president to reach out to former rivals and consider unexpected moves as he assembles his Cabinet.
Obama secretly met with his rival for the Democratic nomination in Chicago on Thursday night, and as news of the visit leaked it sparked a day-long frenzy of speculation that she had been offered, and probably would accept, the position. Clinton allies expressed delight at the prospect, while some Obama supporters reacted with shock at the prospect of the president-elect naming her the nation's top diplomat. Aides to Obama and Clinton gave no formal comment on the meeting or whether the job had been offered.
As word of Clinton's emergence as a serious candidate spread, Obama held a separate meeting Friday with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic official said, a signal that another opponent in the Democratic nominating contest with a deep résumé is also under consideration.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who worked aggressively for Obama's election, is also on the shortlist, two officials said. Any of those three would present opportunities and challenges for Obama as he tries to piece together a Cabinet that is diverse and that would bring the kinds of qualifications that could calm some doubts about his experience.
Clinton, a former first lady who won 18 million votes in the Democratic primaries, would bring star quality to a position that will be critical in the incoming president's effort to keep his promise of changing the nation's image around the world.
But nominating Clinton would come with substantial risks for Obama, adding a potential degree of tension to an inner circle that has prided itself on cohesiveness. Nor would Clinton, who voted to authorize the war in Iraq, be an obvious choice to convey the message of change that has defined Obama.
In addition to her initial differences with Obama on Iraq, Clinton also faced sharp criticism during the primaries when she said she had endured sniper fire in Bosnia, despite television footage showing otherwise. Some Obama supporters also questioned her foreign policy experience, arguing that it has largely been based on her travels as a presidential spouse rather than being rooted in diplomacy.
Perhaps the most pressing question is whether Clinton would pass the rigorous Obama vetting process, which would include a thorough examination of her husband Bill Clinton's private business since leaving office. Obama aides had said during the primaries that Hillary Clinton was not seriously considered for vice president in part because of the work of the former president, who has made millions giving speeches to foreign entities and companies, including some in China and Saudi Arabia, since 2001 and would be required to fully disclose his private work and to name the donors to his presidential library and global charity. His decision to serve on the board of the Yucaipa Cos., a California private equity firm run by billionaire Ronald W. Burkle, his friend, raised eyebrows, as did questions about whether he played a role in helping a Canadian financier land a uranium contract in Kazakhstan.
The Obama transition team is requiring that all candidates for the Cabinet and other senior positions complete a 63-question application, in addition to undergoing an extensive FBI background check, before their Senate confirmation hearings, according to an Obama adviser involved in vetting candidates who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the personnel process. Candidates and their spouses must detail their finances and all corporations, partnerships, trusts, business entities, as well as political, civic, social, charitable, educational, professional, fraternal, benevolent or religious organizations they have been involved with during the past 10 years.
But officials familiar with the process expressed no doubt that Clinton could receive Senate confirmation.
Substantive policy differences exist between Obama and both Clinton and Richardson. While Clinton is generally more hawkish than the president-elect, Richardson, during the campaign, called for an even faster withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq than Obama did.
Richardson has also said he would meet unconditionally with leaders of Iran and North Korea, and he supported free trade pacts. He called for a "new realism" in foreign policy that focused on increased diplomatic efforts around the world. An e-mail sent to Richardson's spokesman late Friday went unanswered.
Clinton, in a televised appearance Friday, said she would not speculate about Obama's Cabinet selections -- a slight shift in tone from before her meeting with him, when she said she would be happy to remain in her role as a senator. Her aides referred questions about the process to the Obama transition team, whose officials would not comment. Advisers warned that only a handful of officials know where Clinton ranks on Obama's shortlist.
But one Clinton veteran in touch with the transition team called it a "real possibility," while another Clinton associate she has a "very good chance" of getting the job. Obama aides cautioned against reports that the president-elect had formally offered Clinton the position, though they did not entirely reject the speculation, a marked difference from their response to reports over the summer that Obama was considering her as a running mate.
"Obviously, Hillary's got to make this decision herself," said Terence R. McAuliffe, who was her campaign chairman. "She's a spectacular senator, and health care is something she wants to battle on. But as secretary of state, she would have 100 percent name ID and she is a beloved figure who is continually rated the most admired woman in the world."
As rumors of a possible Clinton selection mounted, some Obama supporters privately expressed dismay that their hopes of bringing wholesale differences to Washington might be dashed. Clinton administration veterans are dominating some of early phases of the Obama administration, with John D. Podesta, who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff, leading the transition effort and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), a Clinton administration official, tapped to serve as White House chief of staff.
"What happened to all this talk about change?" said a member of the Clinton foreign policy team. "This isn't lightly flavored with Clintons. This is all Clintons, all the time."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who supported Obama during the Democratic primaries, said it would be a "dream team on the global scene" and would "just on its face change foreign policy."
But Sharpton acknowledged that some African Americans would not support the choice. "The downside is a lot of people are still upset with the Clintons about their behavior during the primary. A lot of people are saying, 'Don't reward them.' " But he added that "clearly, Hillary Clinton has credentials. Barack Obama says he loves the book 'Team of Rivals,' so maybe he's trying to put together a Cabinet like Abe Lincoln."
Obama has taken several steps aimed at projecting bipartisan harmony since winning the presidency, including announcing that he will sit down on Monday with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his opponent in the general election. Obama is expected to raise issues, such as energy policy, where the two could find potential agreement.
Obama is considering keeping Robert M. Gates, a Republican, on as defense secretary. He has also urged Democrats to refrain from retaliating against Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, despite the Connecticut independent's ardent support for McCain. And advisers with connections to the Obama transition are floating the idea of New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat who aggressively backed Clinton in the primaries, as a possible Treasury secretary.
For Clinton, a move to State, where she would be the third woman to run the department, would offer an opportunity to lead a sprawling agency facing daunting challenges worldwide, a big leap from her role in the Senate, where she is still relatively junior and does not hold a committee chairmanship.
She does, however, carry the respect of her Senate colleagues, which probably would aid the confirmation process. In an interview, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a confidant of McCain, said Clinton would be an excellent choice for the post.
"She'll easily be confirmed if she gets chosen," Graham said. "That kinda surprised me, but she wouldn't be a bad choice at all. If she were chosen, she has the portfolio and the skills that would make her uniquely qualified for the job."
Staff writers Alec MacGillis, Michael Abramowitz, Michael A. Fletcher and Philip Rucker and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.