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Clinton's New Gig: Promise Or Pitfall?

President-elect Barack Obama stands with Secretary of State-designate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; right, at a news conference in Chicago, Monday, Dec. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Background and analysis by CBS News State Department reporter Charles Wolfson.


Now that the political surprises are over and the winking and nodding have ceased we can start to get down to the business at hand. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's next office will be on the seventh floor of the Department of State, not at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. With her appointment many see great promise; some see the potential for conflict.

Much has been made of President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet as a team of rivals but let's put aside that concept for a few minutes. Every chief executive has a team, some get along better than others but they all work for the president and as President-elect Obama has made clear the buck stops with him. Nevertheless, they all have bureaucratic turf to protect and well defined, strong personalities which have to be managed.

Naturally, Clinton will argue on behalf of her views and those of the State Department but she will have to yield if she cannot persuade Mr. Obama hers is the right path to follow. Given the gravity of the problems in her in-basket the bureaucratic infighting will have to be kept to an absolute minimum if any success is to be achieved.

Aaron David Miller, who worked for six secretaries of state, says if she is to be successful, Hillary Clinton "needs to be the White House's woman at the State Department, not the State Department's woman at the White House." In other words, she has to "reflect his interests."

Of course Clinton is smart enough and has plenty of experience to be secretary of state. The bigger issue is that she is going to be accountable to someone else. It is one thing to say you work for the people who elected you and follow what you think is the best course. It requires a different psychological mindset to admit you work for someone else, that you are not the boss. One assumes the newly named secretary of state has crossed that bridge in her mind or she wouldn't have taken the job. Now she has to make it work on a day to day basis.

There is no accurate way to take the pulse of the foreign and civil service workers who will soon be reporting to Secretary of State Clinton but not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of her arrival, as can be imagined. One senior foreign service officer reflecting that view expressed concerns about the mixture of advancing foreign policy goals and Hillary Clinton's political ambition: "It is all about her," he said. "Every decision will be based on whether she thinks someone is treating her right." But even this critic sees the potential for a strong foreign policy team. "On the bright side, this will be the highest octane White House-State Department in a long time…..and she'll be able to bring positive energy."

On the positive side, Mr. Obama and his secretary of state will take office with most of the world eager to work with them. Still, given the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Clinton's workload has increased with even more emphasis now going to the India-Pakistan portfolio than before. Iran and North Korea's nuclear ambitions remain a top priority as does the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Relations with Russia, China and a dozen other countries are ignored at one's peril and working with several dozen other nations on the global economic crisis is a given.

Can Hillary Clinton be what Aaron Miller calls a "consequential" secretary of state? Being tough, disciplined and intellectually up to the job are a given, Miller says. The unknown factors, he argues, are what kind of a relationship she will have with Mr. Obama and "whether she has a negotiator's mindset. Can she fit the pieces of the puzzle together?" Miller's view is that Henry Kissinger and James A. Baker, III had such a mindset but our last four secretaries of state did not.

When Hillary Clinton becomes America's top diplomat she'll have an air force jet to whisk her anywhere in the world she wants to go and a fine suite of offices with an outstanding view of the mall and the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps it will be that under Mr. Lincoln's watchful gaze this team of former rivals will be just that.