By Chris Cillizza, Alec MacGillis and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Bill Clinton has agreed to a series of concessions requested by officials representing Barack Obama's presidential transition team, moving his wife one step closer to potentially becoming the next secretary of state.
Aides to both Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said that a formal job offer had not been made, but the former president's decision to disclose the identities of donors to his charitable foundation and to vet his future speeches and overseas activities with members of the Obama administration appears to have removed some of the biggest hurdles to her nomination.
Obama aides said yesterday that it would be difficult for Sen. Clinton to walk away from the secretary of state post. Obama's staff has thoroughly vetted both Clintons with the understanding that, if he should make an official job offer, she would accept.
As uncertainty continued to surround Sen. Clinton, other pieces of Obama's administration continued to fall into place. Sources confirmed that former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), an early supporter of Obama's presidential bid, would be tapped to lead the Health and Human Services Department.
Obama's consideration of Clinton for the top diplomatic post has puzzled supporters of other contenders, particularly Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, two men who endorsed Obama over Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries at the cost of incurring considerable wrath from the Clinton camp. It also has perplexed rank-and-file Obama supporters who heard the candidate spend most of the primary contest critiquing Clinton's foreign-policy mindset.
The president-elect also signaled that he did not think that Senate Democrats needed to punish Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) for his outspoken support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama's presidential rival, and then met with McCain less than two weeks after the general election.
The Senate followed Obama's lead on Tuesday, voting 42 to 13 to let Lieberman retain his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"It's a little unsettling. The earth has shifted a little," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who endorsed Obama early in the primaries. "Barack has sent a very clear signal since the election that all of the talk about changing the way we do things is not just talk -- that he's deadly serious about getting beyond partisan food fights to solve the serious problems of today. What happened with Senator Lieberman was a direct result of the tone he set. There was no venting or teeth-baring or finger-pointing. The vast majority of the caucus is following his lead and realizing that the old politics is punishment and revenge and retribution -- and the new politics is 'Get to work.' "
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) voted against keeping Lieberman in his chairmanship -- "Lieberman was awful to" Obama -- but he said Obama's personal magnanimity should not be confused with a willingness to surrender on key issues.
"You can reconcile without compromises of principle, and that's what Barack is doing," Brown said. "He has enough confidence in his own progressive views to reach out and work with people, and working with people can be bipartisan without moving to the center."
But as Obama brings as many people as possible inside his tent, there are only so many prime seats available. Choosing Clinton as secretary of state would mean passing over Kerry, whose endorsement of Obama gave him a lift after his defeat in the New Hampshire primary, and Richardson, who was derided as a Judas by Clinton confidant James Carville after the governor endorsed Obama in March.
One top Kerry adviser said this week that the senator from Massachusetts is already reconciling himself to Clinton being the pick. Kerry will also be the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 111th Congress, a post he sees as an opportunity to "carve out a legacy as a senior statesman."
McCaskill said any Obama supporter upset that an appointment went to a former rival should realize that the president-elect's willingness to work with past foes is a reason so many people supported him. "People are going to have to set aside what they want and think about what the country needs," she said. "The old school was that you reward your friends and punish your enemies. But it's a new day, and there is no reward and punishment going on."
Others wonder why Obama would want as his chief diplomat someone whose foreign policy approach he criticized throughout the primaries. Obama said Clinton has a "mindset that got us into war" in Iraq, while Clinton suggested that Obama was naive in his eagerness to talk with enemies.
But Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a leading conservative critic of the war in Iraq, said there may be less distance between the two now. Obama, he said, has turned toward a more military-minded approach as he argues for sending more troops to Afghanistan.
Clinton, Bacevich said, "is smart, competent and well-versed in the ways of the world -- and a completely conventional thinker in the mainstream of American statecraft. To the extent that Obama chooses her, it is a signal that he himself hews to the mainstream. It's an indication that his promise to change the way Washington works has a fairly limited scope."
Advisers to the senator from New York insist that she remains undecided about whether she would accept the secretary of state position. Clinton is considering the option with her husband and close advisers, a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations said, noting that becoming the nation's top diplomat would be a career-changing decision. Of particular concern is how much influence Clinton would have in Obama's White House, where she would compete for attention with other top foreign policy and national security aides, the source said.
Clinton, according to those close to her, is only now beginning to think seriously about her political legacy.
"I think she's in legacy-planning mode and needs to figure out how to make a mark over the next five years, since that is her window," said one Clinton adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Among the concessions made by Bill Clinton, according to a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations, was an agreement to release the names of all previous and future donors to the William J. Clinton Foundation, including those who gave gifts anonymously -- an idea that the Clintons had rejected during the senator's presidential campaign. The foundation staff will begin contacting donors who gave to the foundation anonymously to tell them their names will now be released to the Obama team, the source said.
Yesterday, the transition team also formalized several hires, including David Axelrod, the chief strategist of Obama's presidential campaign, as a senior adviser, and Washington lawyer Greg Craig as White House counsel. Lisa Brown, a former counsel to Vice President Al Gore, was named staff secretary, and Obama's Senate legislative director, Christopher P. Lu, was tapped to be Cabinet secretary.