Hillary for State: An Inspired Choice?

Washington Matters

Hillary for State: An Inspired Choice?

It's far from a done deal, but the idea that President-elect Obama might pick Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state is an intriguing one. There are risks, but the upside is huge. It would send an important message to the world and the nation -- and solve some tricky political problems.


Clinton flew out to Chicago last night and though no one is talking on the record, it's clear that she has moved up the list of potential secretaries of state. That may have something to do with the large number of Clintonites on Obama's transition team -- and the influence of Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who's a big Hillary fan.

Some wonder whether she'd accept the job if offered, but as one unnamed aide reportedly said, "What would you rather do -- be a senator or a secretary of state?" Clinton could carve out a significant role for herself in the Senate, but she lacks the seniority to take on an official post and she'd be constantly butting heads with dozens of other ambitious senators, to say nothing of the Obama administration. So the odds favor a "yes" if the job is offered. The only question is, Will it be?


The advantages to Obama would be significant:

1) Clinton brings a lot of foreign policy experience and expertise, backed up by her husband's experience and her association with his old team. She's traveled widely and many of the world's leaders already know and trust her. She's also been an active member of the Armed Services Committee so she knows and works well with the defense establishment.

2) It would send an instant message that Obama won't be a pushover on foreign policy. In the long campaign for the Democratic nomination, Clinton took a harder line than Obama on foreign affairs, and picking her for the top diplomatic post would end speculation that he may be too quick to compromise U.S. interests.

3) The move would tell the American people that Obama is willing to surround himself with strong people who may disagree and won't be afraid to challenge him on policy issues. It will lend credence to his promise to consider a wide array of opinions before making important decisions. It's also in keeping with his respect for the way Abraham Lincoln managed to form an effective government by bringing his chief rivals into his administration.


4) It would end, or at least silence, any remaining bitterness among Clinton loyalists. It would also remove the danger of Clinton becoming a rival power center in the Senate and give Obama a freer hand on health care policy.

5) Picking Hillary for State may also help harness the power and experience of Bill Clinton, while limiting any danger that he'd operate as a free agent working against Obama's goals.

But there are potential disadvantages:

1) Their differences on policy in places like Iraq could be a problem. It's one thing for a Cabinet member to disagree in private and quite another to resist once a decision has been made. Will Hillary Clinton be a real team player?


2) The flip side of having Bill Clinton at her side is having Bill Clinton at her side. Will he pull her in directions different from what Obama wants? Will he be too influential in how she runs the department?

3) And the flip side of not having her in the Senate as a competing power center is not having her in the center as an advocate who can help push through Obama's legislative priorities on health care and other issues that Clinton has become identified with.

In the end, what may matter the most is the chemistry between the two. It's all well and good to seek a Cabinet of rivals, to want people strong enough to speak up, to work toward a team with diversity -- but in the end, it will be a question of whether Obama feels comfortable enough with Clinton as his secretary of state and whether she feels comfortable enough accepting a role that puts her on a team that can't allow any freelancing.