The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Clinton and Obama tried to run the world — while trying to manage each other

Review of "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle for American Power" by Mark Landler

From rivals to team: President-Elect Barack Obama announces then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as his choice for secretary of state on Dec. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

ALTER EGOS: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power

By Mark Landler

Random House. 406 pp. $28

There is something about the relationship between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that fascinates Washington journalists — and then stymies them.

In 2009, we learned that NBC’s Chuck Todd was writing a book about Obama and Clinton, a “nuanced analytical narrative” of their political relationship, according to Todd’s agent. By the time “The Stranger” came out in 2014, though, it had devolved into a daily rundown of Obama White House coverage; the portions focusing on the president and secretary of state, however tantalizing, were a small part of the story.

Now Mark Landler of the New York Times offers “Alter Egos,” promising the inside account of Obama and Clinton, “protagonists in a great debate over American power . . . archrivals who became partners for a time, trailblazers who shared a common sense of their historic destiny but different instincts about how to project power.” The result is an outstanding book on U.S. foreign policy over the past seven years, a work that is granular when it must be and overarching when it can, revealing how foreign relations are conducted and deliberated, and packed with fly-on-the-wall anecdotes.

What it does not provide, however, is a particularly surprising look at the relationship between the two principals or a clear sense of sharply contrasting foreign policy doctrines. Although Landler plays up the differences — “Clinton and Obama have come to embody competing visions of America’s role in the world” — there is no real clash of worldviews here. As the author admits early on, “It must be said, [they] agreed more than they disagreed.” Where they diverge, their differences are more of style than of substance, of instinct than of principle.

But style and instinct matter, and in Landler’s hands, they make a worthwhile tale. There are many in-depth books dealing with individual aspects of U.S. foreign policy in recent years, but for a single work encompassing the Obama administration’s engagement with the world, it is hard to imagine one better. From the Arab Spring to the resurgence of Russia to the Iran nuclear deal, Landler reveals a president obsessed with making history, and a secretary of state weighing every move in light of her personal advancement. Really, “Alter Egos” could just be called “Egos.”

Credit-mongering is a bloodsport in Washington, as the book makes clear. Back in the halcyon, pre-Benghazi days, when the U.S. intervention in Libya seemed successful, Clinton’s team wanted to make sure everyone knew that it was all hers. Top aide Jake Sullivan put together a list of items showcasing Clinton’s “leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish” and urged the secretary to seize the moment with an op-ed articulating “something definitive — almost like the Clinton Doctrine.”

Obama was more circumspect about the intervention. When then-White House aide Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Problem From Hell,” spoke up in the Situation Room about America’s moral responsibility to protect Libyan civilians, Obama snapped back: “This isn’t an opportunity for you to write a new chapter of your book.”

The administration’s “pivot to Asia,” which Landler describes as a “healthy collaboration” between Obama and Clinton, also produced a “bitter tug-of-war between those who tried to claim authorship.” It was almost comical, with Obama national security adviser Tom Donilon and Clinton both racing to produce thinky journal articles that would plant flags in the administration’s renewed focus on U.S. leadership in Asia. Donilon was writing an essay for Foreign Affairs but took too long to complete it. (“It became a joke because every month there’d be meetings about the Foreign Affairs article,” an aide told Landler.) Meanwhile, Clinton was drafting a piece for Foreign Policy on the same subject, even while some White House officials encouraged her to shift to a snoozier topic, like multilateralism. Clinton won, publishing “America’s Pacific Century” on Oct. 11, 2011, boasting of her multiple trips to Asia. “It might as well have said, ‘Clinton’s Pacific Century,’ ” Landler writes.

Certainly, Clinton was deeply involved in key aspects of the pivot, particularly in rebuilding trust with Chinese officials. Jim Steinberg, her deputy at the State Department, coined the phrase “strategic reassurance” to describe how Washington should manage ties with the emerging Asian power. (A rule of foreign-policy-making: Add “strategic” to any concept, and it’ll sound weightier.)

[Why America is terrible at making the world a better place]

But when Clinton shifted from secretary of state to presidential candidate, she disavowed a major element of the pivot: the 12-country trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Though she supported it as secretary, her “political calculations during a Democratic primary were clear,” Landler notes. The move, appeasing key Democratic interest groups, stung her former administration colleagues.

Such political calculations are a recurring theme for Landler, and they’re evident from the moment Clinton brought much of HillaryLand with her to Foggy Bottom. “Never before had the nation’s seat of diplomacy been so unabashedly political, with a constellation of Clinton-appointed special envoys and advisers, some of whom knew next to nothing about diplomacy,” Landler writes. “In some ways, she never stopped behaving like a candidate.”

Political instincts guided Clinton away from issues she considered unwinnable, such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, with the new secretary of state outright refusing an early trip to the region that then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel urged her to take. They also served her well, as when she reached out to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell to get buy-in for her efforts to reestablish ties with Burma. “This was the kind of courtesy call that Barack Obama almost never made on Capitol Hill,” Landler emphasizes. And they compelled her to write lengthy for-the-record memos to the president as she exited the State Department, causing plenty of eye-rolling at the White House. “We didn’t need a memo to know Putin is an a–hole,” one Obama aide told Landler.

Of course, Clinton’s political expediency reflected bureaucratic realities. The president liked running foreign policy out of the West Wing, Landler explains, and “Clinton had trouble penetrating Obama’s clannish inner circle.” That inner circle was devoted to finding symbolic, legacy-building opportunities for the boss. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign policy whisperer, regarded outreach to closed societies such as Cuba as “exactly what a history-making president like Obama should be doing,” Landler writes, and threw himself into secret negotiations with Havana. Obama saw the Iran nuclear agreement as a once-in-a-generation achievement and pursued it accordingly. And he fretted that historians would remember him for the wrong thing. “I don’t want to be just remembered as the drone president,” he said to a top adviser in 2012.

[The liberal war over the Obama legacy has already begun]

In Landler’s telling, Obama is often at war with himself. “What I want is for the kids on the street to win and for the Google guy to become president,” Obama told aides, referring to the 2011 uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the leadership of Google executive Wael Ghonim. “What I think is that this is going to be long and hard.” Problem is, we elect presidents to reconcile their wishes and their thoughts.

“Alter Egos” offers plenty of memorable moments in the daily minutiae of foreign policy. It’s hard to forget Obama and Clinton barging past a security guard at a Copenhagen climate summit, into a room where Chinese, Indian, Brazilian and South African officials were dealing behind Washington’s back (“Mr. Prime Minister, are you ready to see me now?” Obama asked China’s Wen Jiabao). Or the evening Clinton tossed back pisco sours while negotiating with Chinese diplomat Zhang Yesui in a bar in Lima, Peru. Or the moment, during a marathon telephone session with Benjamin Netanyahu, “a frustrated Clinton began silently banging the phone on her forehead.” Or when, after legendary diplomat Richard Holbrooke died from a torn aorta during stressful turf wars with the White House, Obama complained, “I’m sick of people writing about how I killed Richard Holbrooke.”

The tensions between Landler’s two protagonists often flowed from two staffs that still felt the sting of the bruising 2008 Democratic primary contest. But now it is Clinton who is campaigning for president, and Obama knows that his legacy hinges in part on her success. “Her campaign is Obama’s as well,” Landler concludes. History seems determined to keep Obama and Clinton as both team and rivals.

Read more from Book Party, including:

This is the closest thing we’ll ever have to a Hillary Clinton political manifesto

The ‘racial procrastination’ of Barack Obama

The book every new American citizen — and every old one, too — should read