Video: Obama attacks on Clinton: politics or prophecy?

updated 12/5/2008 11:39:19 AM ET 2008-12-05T16:39:19

Probably the most frequent question about Hillary Rodham Clinton's appointment as secretary of State is whether she and Barack Obama can build a trusting personal relationship after clawing each other for the Democratic nomination. But it's likely that neither would have engineered this partnership unless they believed the answer was yes.

That means her effectiveness will likely turn on less obvious questions. Here are three.

Will Clinton's experience as an elected official help or hurt her?
Once, presidents routinely selected prominent politicians -- often their party's other leading light -- as their secretary of State. In the 19th century, the Senate's "Great Triumvirate" of Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, and Henry Clay all held the job at one point; Woodrow Wilson tapped William Jennings Bryan, a three-time (losing) Democratic presidential nominee. But that tradition has faded. Since 1948, only two secretaries had won elected office before serving: Christian Herter (for Dwight Eisenhower) and Edmund Muskie (for Jimmy Carter). And each was only a graying caretaker for a waning administration.

Clinton reverts to the 19th-century model -- a politician in her prime serving a president in his. Her background means that she has experienced the domestic political pressures that shape foreign policy more directly than the diplomats and lawyers who have most often held the job since World War II. This experience could help her guide Obama around some minefields -- and also help her decipher other foreign ministers, most of whom, coming from parliamentary systems, are also elected.

But such a strength could become a weakness if it encourages excessive deference to domestic lobbies. Ironically, Obama's campaign raised that risk in an inflammatory 2007 memo (which Obama later disowned) arguing that Clinton, as president, could not deal with India because she was too beholden to the Indian-American community. It's Israel, though, not India, that is likely to generate the sharpest tension between Clinton's political and diplomatic instincts.

Obama's new Cabinet?Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who advised six secretaries of State on Middle East policy, says that Clinton's sensitivity to domestic politics may discourage her from pushing Israel as well as the Arabs toward concessions for progress -- which he correctly argues is essential to an effective American mediating role. "The real question is: Understanding what she understands ... about domestic politics, will she be able to cross that emotional Rubicon" to challenge both sides? says Miller, author of The Much Too Promised Land.

Whose failures does she remember?
Obama and Clinton clearly intend to learn from President Bush's mistake (especially in his first term) of repeatedly isolating the U.S. through brusque unilateralism. But Hillary Clinton will also need to mind Bill Clinton's missteps in the opposite direction.

Video: Does Obama have a role for Bill Clinton? Like Obama now, Bill Clinton arrived pledging to strengthen relations with allies. But in Clinton's first months in office, he so meekly petitioned Europe to join him in military intervention against savage ethnic violence in Bosnia that no consensus to act emerged. Clinton didn't persuade Europe to intervene with him until years later, when he prodded as intently as he listened.

Obama and Hillary Clinton may be tempted to court allies alienated from Bush by listening more than they talk. But her husband's early experience should remind Clinton to balance outreach with insistence as she presses NATO allies to meet their obligations, most immediately in Afghanistan. Obama's global popularity offers her leverage to not just soothe but also to challenge. "We have to let them help us shape the policy in Afghanistan," says Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "But the lesson [of Bosnia] is that we have to keep the pressure on them to hold up their end of our collective-security responsibilities."

Is Clinton's star power an asset or a liability?
Not even Colin Powell among recent secretaries can match Clinton's celebrity. That wattage, notes one former adviser to Bill Clinton, means that Obama can signal "very high-impact U.S. engagement" by sending her to trouble spots, rather than only by visiting himself. Clinton's international fame also ensures that she'll wield a huge megaphone in the global war of ideas.

The downside will be if Clinton's star power encourages her to see herself as an independent power center, a debilitating delusion in this job. "She's potentially a groundbreaking secretary at a time when we need one," Miller says. "Alternately, she's the star role in a soap opera. You can call it 'As the World Turns.' That would not have a happy ending."

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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