Hillary Rodham Clinton widens her circle at the State Department

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expanding her often tight inner circle and focusing her agenda.
By Lois Romano
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hillary Rodham Clinton ran a presidential campaign notoriously insular and unhappy, managing a group of egos and backstabbers whose dysfunction may have cost her the White House. Understandably, people wondered what kind of management style she would bring to the State Department.

But a little over a year into her tenure as secretary of state, allies and detractors alike say Clinton has made a vigorous effort to widen her circle, wooing and pulling into her orbit the agency's Foreign Service and civil service officials, many of whom said in interviews that she has brought a new energy to the building.

"We have had other secretaries of state who have cared deeply for the institution," said Patrick F. Kennedy, undersecretary for management and a senior Foreign Service officer. "None who have done as much internal outreach."

To be sure, Clinton has her share of critics who take aim at her operating style, complaining that she has ceded too much of her power to special envoys and that she has been in a global campaign mode of relentless image-building, intense travel and international media cultivation. Her job-approval ratings top President Obama's.

One loyalist inside the agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, suggested that Clinton is stretched too thin and has not narrowed her goals or developed signature issues that will define her tenure. "What bothers me is that we're planting zillions of seeds . . . speeches on every issue, but where's the thematic coherence?" this aide said.

Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked at the State Department under Colin L. Powell, agreed that Clinton "seems to still be struggling with priorities" and questioned whether she has a "grand strategic vision."

But, he added, "there is no question from a public diplomacy standpoint, she has had a lot to offer in different parts of the world" because of her star power. And he noted that inside the agency, "people invested in the institution are quite happy with things. Here's a woman who everyone expected to be circling the wagons and running the place with a small coterie, and that hasn't happened."

Hillaryland goes global

It is well known that Clinton has long placed a high premium on loyalty, some say too high, leaving her open to criticism that she values it over job qualifications. And at State, she is still surrounded by advisers from her days as a first lady and a senator -- often referred to as Hillaryland. In addition, her vast network of former White House, Senate and campaign aides, as well as some supporters, permeates every floor of the building.

But before she was confirmed, Clinton was expanding Hillaryland: She asked two popular Foreign Service officers -- Kennedy and William J. Burns, undersecretary for political affairs -- to stay on. She has approached this new constituency of 60,000 worldwide like a seasoned pol trying to shore up support.

Those interviewed inside and outside the agency say Clinton has done a good job of heading off the historical tensions between career employees and quadrennial political newcomers by relying on the counsel of senior Foreign Service operatives and reaching out in general.

She has walked the halls and popped into offices unexpectedly, created an electronic "sounding board," and held seven internal town hall meetings to listen to gripes about everything from policy to cafeteria food to bullying in the workplace. She installed six new showers that joggers requested, is taking steps to remedy overseas pay inequities and instituted a policy that allows partners of gay diplomats to receive benefits. She became a heroine to the Foreign Service when she went to bat to get funding for 3,000 new Foreign Service positions for State operations and the U.S. Agency for International Development -- the first boost of this magnitude in two decades.

Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary for the Near East and a Foreign Service officer, is one of those whom Clinton surprised -- and won over. He was already looking for a new job when she tracked him down at his barbershop 24 hours after she was sworn in to seek his advice. A few weeks later, she asked him to stay on.

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