What is Barack Obama thinking?
We’ve heard all the rational arguments: Hillary Rodham Clinton has more star power than Richard Holbrooke, more discipline than Bill Richardson, fewer bad jokes than John F. Kerry. She’s tough and competent. She’s a woman and a Democrat, making space for a Republican guy at Defense. It would get her out of the Senate. Both Obama and Clinton loved Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, “Team of Rivals.”
But the sum of those parts seems something less than the whole explanation for Obama’s first great presidential gamble: his move toward giving his former adversary, whose judgment on foreign policy he criticized relentlessly, by offering her the most important Cabinet position in his administration.
Neither Holbrooke, Kerry nor Richardson would bring Clinton’s downsides: Her towering, volcanic husband; her own ambitions; and the endless speculation about the two of them.
“She brings so much to the table,” said Abner Mikva, a former Clinton White House counsel and an Obama mentor. “On the other hand, there are the obvious downsides, the conflicts that that her husband has.”
Insiders around Obama say the X factor at play is Obama’s icy tolerance for risk, and his belief in the power of the grand gesture.
Throughout his political career, Obama has had a tendency to “go big,” as his aides say, with dramatic moves and giant spectacles punctuating his run for president — his head-on race speech, his presidential-style tour of the Middle East and Europe, an acceptance speech held in a football stadium.
The Clinton move, like those, marries an arguably practical choice with lofty symbolism: He’s enlarging his own administration by bringing in one of the leading figures in American politics, and delivering on a promise of a new politics that doesn’t play favorites or hold grudges.
“It says that he has the personal confidence to engage someone of the notoriety and substance of Sen. Clinton,” said Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, an early Obama supporter and prominent campaign surrogate. “Implementing change is an exciting exercise.”
Indeed, Obama’s transition appears suffused with a sense that the actors are living a historic moment, for which extraordinary gestures are appropriate.
“This would really give her a very unique platform to really be a part of this historic time we’re living in right now, even greater than her role as a powerful senator,” said Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri, another early Obama backer.
Obama supporters point to her specific qualifications, her global celebrity, command of the issues and personal acquaintance with international players (assets Obama downplayed in his long campaign against her) as central to the decision to offer her the position.
“She is a capable and strong candidate for that post,” said Carnahan. “Probably few people would have the kind of built-in knowledge and relationships with world leaders she would have.”
But beyond the triumphal symbolism is a specific job, accompanied by a serious downside. Negotiations between the two camps focus on the former president’s role, as do many of the quiet doubts among Obama’s supporters, though Bill Clinton said Wednesday he would do “whatever they want” to make the arrangement possible, should his wife and the president-elect agree.
Still, imagining how the former president could cause Obama problems has become a popular Beltway pastime, and not a particularly challenging one. He could criticize administration choices that differ from his own. He could inconveniently rise to his wife’s defense against a foreign leader. He could be too close for comfort with any of the dozens of foreign leaders and tycoons he’s courted as head of a private foundation. He could remobilizean army of investigative reporters, beginning with the National Enquirer.
Clinton herself poses specific challenges as the president’s chief international envoy.
“This notion of team of rivals is an absurd concept,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department official now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Miller said Clinton has some of the key attributes of a good secretary of state — stature and toughness — but that she’s untested as a negotiator, and her status as an erstwhile Obama rival might undermine an envoy’s traditional trump card.
“People need to know that you speak with the authority of your president, and she … lacks a close relationship with” Obama, said Miller, who wrote that she is the “the best of a weak field of potential Secretaries of State.”
Obama is undeterred by those worries, Democrats say. Though some of his backers cringed at the idea of nominating a woman they’d spent more than a year hammering, his circle has come to view the move as another masterstroke on the road to creating the most unified, powerful Democratic leadership in living memory.
With Clinton out of the Senate, the considerably lower-profile Russ Feingold of Wisconsin would probably be the highest-ranking Democrat with a propensity to oppose the new president in the Senate.
The new president, meanwhile, would be able to conserve his political capital for the issue on which he was elected, the economy.
On Wednesday, Obama’s circle remained sanguine about the choice, and apparently confident that the appointment would come to pass, even as some close to Clinton expressed doubts that she’d accept.
“It’s a risk with a big upside,” said one Democrat close to Obama.