Eclipsed by a globe-trotting president, a foreign policy-savvy vice president and a bevy of special envoys, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is struggling to re-emerge this week as the Obama administration's diplomatic heavyweight.
Clinton is trying to retake center stage as the administration's top foreign policy voice after four frustrating, low-profile weeks during which a fractured elbow forced her to cancel two overseas trips.
Her diminishing presence abroad and at home, followed by her startling public criticism of the White House this week for delaying a key appointment, has prompted a flurry of speculation about whether her influence is waning inside President Barack Obama's Cabinet.
Clinton delivered what aides billed as a major policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Wednesday.
"Today, we must acknowledge two strategic facts: First, that no nation can meet the world's challenges alone. ... Second, that most nations worry about the same global threats, from non-proliferation to fighting disease to counter-terrorism. ... Just as no nation can meet these challenges alone, no challenge can be met without America," said Clinton.
On Iran, Clinton added, "Neither the president nor I have any illusions that direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic will guarantee success. But we also understand the importance of trying to engage Iran and offering its leaders a clear choice — whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation."
"Her role so far has been more in the field of public relations than in policy formation," said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "She is seen as glamorous and in many countries as a valuable symbol of the United States, but it is not at all clear that she has an in-depth influence on foreign policy.
"She needs to decide if she wants to be the administration's mascot or have an impact on actual policy," he said. "If she wants to have an impact, the speech may be a way of claiming her stake."
Criticism of ‘ridiculous’ vetting process
Clinton's frustration was perhaps evident Monday when in a rare fit of pique, she lashed out at the White House for failing to quickly nominate someone to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In rather undiplomatic comments, Clinton criticized the White House vetting process as a "nightmare," "frustrating beyond words" and "ridiculous." She added that overly burdensome financial and personal disclosure requirements had led several candidates to withdraw.
And, in an unusually blunt description of an administration squabble, she allowed that she had "tried very hard" but had been denied permission by the White House to tell USAID employees that they would soon get a new boss.
The White House declined to comment on her remarks.
The unfilled UDSAID post Clinton complained about is considered critical to what she often refers to as "smart power," the combination of defense, diplomacy and development that the administration wants to guide its foreign policy. "Smart power," which Clinton spoke about frequently in her early days as the nation's top envoy, was to be the focus of her speech Wednesday.
"She's not trying to announce a grand doctrine," said Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton's director of policy planning. "That is not the point. The point is to provide a coherent strategic framework" that explains the administration's foreign policy approach thus far and sets the stage for future policy decisions.
Though they deny any rivalries within the administration's foreign policy team and reject suggestions she has been forced into a backseat role, Clinton aides say she is eager to get back to what had been a busy pace of travel and events.
They note that she has had frequent and regular meetings at the White House with the president, pointing to private sessions with both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office scheduled for just an hour after her speech on Wednesday.
But they acknowledge that she has chafed under the limitations imposed by her injury, which notably caused her to miss important multilateral conferences in Europe in late June and to be unable to accompany Obama to Russia last week.
Still the impression persists that she lost clout in her absence, as Obama traveled frequently in an elevated foreign policy role that some observers have described as "diplomat in chief." At the same time, Biden has also assumed an increasingly public role in diplomacy in Iraq and has waded into both the delicate Mideast peace process and into American relations with Iran. And national security adviser James Jones has shaped his own high-profile presence, while a group of globe-trotting special envoys have pursued shuttle diplomacy from Jerusalem to Kabul.
Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said it is still too early, six months into the administration, to assess Clinton's influence.
But he noted she has yet to take on a specific significant project or projects to distinguish herself as the nation's chief diplomat.
"Every president always overshadows every secretary of state, that's just the nature of the beast," he said. "But a secretary of state carves out a niche by picking out an issue, or two or three, and taking it as his or her own. She hasn't yet done that, at least not yet."
Clinton's departure Thursday for India and Thailand will mark her first trip abroad since a one-day visit to Niagara Falls, Canada, on June 13, and only in recent days has she begun to resume a more robust schedule in talks with visiting foreign officials and "town hall" meetings with employees.
"Her name hasn't been up there in lights," Dale said.
In the address, Clinton planned to highlight the importance of dealing with the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the threat posed by Iran and North Korea, the need for compromise to forge Middle East peace and an initiative on international food security, aides said.