By Michael Abramowitz and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Leaving the news conference in Chicago yesterday where he introduced his national security team, President-elect Barack Obama strolled out of the room arm in arm with his choice for secretary of state and onetime rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The gesture may have been a subtle indication that Obama is aware that one of the biggest questions about his choice of Clinton is the kind of relationship they will be able to forge in the months ahead.
Many of the most successful secretaries of state, though not all, enjoyed great influence with the presidents they served, giving them crucial leverage with foreign leaders and inside the national security establishment. But Obama and Clinton are only starting to develop the kind of rapport that could lead to that trust, and the ultimate success of the senator from New York in her new role may depend as much on Obama's willingness to admit her to his inner circle as her ability to master the intricacies of the Middle East peace process or North Korea's nuclear weapons program, according to senior foreign policy officials from past administrations.
Democrats familiar with the transition said the two have spent time over the past several weeks discussing the parameters of the job and how they would work together: Clinton received assurances that she would have the kind of access to Obama she needs, as well as the authority to pick her own team. They said the Obama team would like her to select James Steinberg as her deputy, but that hardly seems a problem, since Steinberg worked closely with her husband in the Clinton White House as deputy national security adviser.
Ironically, Steinberg recently co-authored a book raising questions about the wisdom of appointing "all-stars" -- foreign policy experts and prominent members of Congress with little connection to the new president -- in key national security jobs. While such appointments can help foster a sense that a new president has made the transition from campaigning to governing, Steinberg and co-author Kurt M. Campbell pointed to numerous examples of the appointments leading to discord and disappointment, especially in the Clinton administration.
Some close to Clinton and Obama say the two are well aware of these potential pitfalls. In their private discussions in recent weeks, Obama "really made an effort to say that she would be an important member of his team," said one Democrat familiar with the transition effort.
Melanne Verveer, Clinton's chief of staff when she was first lady, said Clinton was heavily influenced by watching her husband conduct foreign policy. "She learned the importance of there not being sunlight, if you will, between the secretary and the president in terms of foreign policy," Verveer said. "She really understands the importance of speaking with one voice, and that is the president's voice. Her record is very clear on that -- and that is exactly what she will do."
Former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright said that the body language of Obama and Clinton, as well as the public statements they have made since the primary season concluded, suggest that the partnership will work. "I think they are both highly professional and highly respectful of each other," she said. "I am sure that in fact that they have worked out a way that she will have the kind of access she needs. She will give him her opinion unvarnished, but she will also be a very good team member."
Clinton, if confirmed, may be the most prominent figure to hold the top job at State in modern times -- a presidential candidate and former first lady who knows other world leaders on a first-name basis and has been a fixture on the world stage since the 1990s. Her nomination is the first time that a president has appointed a major political rival to head the State Department since 1881, when James Garfield chose James Blaine.
"I think this is a sensational appointment," said Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, who served as Bill Clinton's national security adviser. "She brings intellectual firepower. She brings a high energy and a credibility in the world, which will be very valuable. Obama has shown great leadership in putting this team together."
But the risks to the appointment are substantial, and success is far from guaranteed. Clinton has enormous star power, but some of her predecessors who were initially greeted as rock stars, such as Colin L. Powell, proved to be less effective than anticipated. Clinton has no real experience managing a large government bureaucracy, and in fact her two most significant management missions -- running the health-care task force in her husband's first term and her own presidential campaign -- were riven by infighting. And Bill Clinton has been a magnet for controversy.
During the primary campaign, the two leading Democrats also fought bitterly at times over foreign policy, with Clinton questioning Obama's willingness to talk with Iran's president and Obama questioning her judgment in supporting the resolution giving President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. But associates of both Clinton and Obama say the differences were magnified during the heat of the campaign; Clinton, they say, shares Obama's desire to restore American influence in the world through diplomatic efforts such as a new initiative aimed at getting Iran to halt uranium enrichment that could lead to the development of a nuclear weapon.
"She is very keen on having America's leadership restored in a way where we are respected, where we are capable of talking to countries we don't like," Albright said. "That would be her modus operandi, and it fits with what Obama has said."
James M. Lindsay, director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas's LBJ School of Public Affairs, said there are several key ingredients for a secretary of state's success. First, he said, a secretary needs "a mixture of political savvy and a vision for the world." Second, the secretary needs the trust and support of the president -- "someone who takes your calls and doesn't hang you out to dry." And third, "having a strong will to work and an ego wrapped in leather."
Many of those qualities describe James A. Baker III, who worked for President George H.W. Bush and is generally regarded as the most successful of modern secretaries of state. Baker came to the office with few defined foreign policy views -- but worked for a president who did. He was also the president's closest friend, which made him a formidable force when combined with his political skills as a former Treasury secretary, White House chief of staff and presidential campaign manager.
In much the same way, Condoleezza Rice's close relationship with George W. Bush helped pave the way for influence overseas. Kings and prime ministers believed that she had a direct line to the president, and that when she spoke, she was speaking for him -- in contrast to Powell, her predecessor.
"Clinton's challenge will be to make sure her stewardship of the State Department is compatible with the views of the new president," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter.