Secretary of State Clinton: An Early View

Washington Matters

Secretary of State Clinton: An Early View

A year ago, there was reason to doubt that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton could put their differences behind them. The two had just waged the bitterest nomination fight the Democratic Party had seen in a generation. But Clinton turned into a staunch campaigner for Obama in the general election. Her efforts helped tip such key battleground states as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida into the blue column in November. That by itself wasn't enough to keep some Obama supporters from raising red flags over the prospect of Clinton's nomination as Secretary of State. As we noted at the time, some of the sharpest differences that emerged between the two during the Democratic primaries hinged on foreign policy -- with Clinton frequently taking a linecloser to that of President Bush than that of Obama.

Fast forward nine months. Whatever doubts anyone might have had about how Clinton would perform as America's chief diplomat, concerns that she might try to dominate or undermine Obama have proven unfounded. To the contrary, she has distinguished herself as a team player, adopting the president's policies as her own. She works well with administration colleagues whose spheres overlap her own, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Security Adviser James Jones and Vice President Joseph Biden. She may still harbor Oval Office ambitions of her own -- she'll be 69 in 2017, either at the tail end of an eight-year Obama administration or four years of a Republican successor. But for the moment, she's relegated any White House aspirations to the back burner and put her considerable prestige, experience and Democratic Party power base at Obama's disposal.

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Under her watch, thought, the influence of the State Department is undoubtedly diminishing. To be fair, that's a process that started before she took office. The Pentagon's dominance in Iraq policy and the Treasury Department's lead role in combating the global recession were developments that started under Bush. But many of the hottest button diplomacy issues now fall to policy czars that report directly to the White House -- Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan and Pakistan, George Mitchell on Mideast peace and Stephen Bosworth on North Korea, to name the most prominent. And like many modern presidents, Obama himself is taking a major hand in directing foreign policy, sidelining his Secretary of State.

But Clinton still has plenty of room to make her mark. As David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted in the Washington Post, Clinton is reshaping U.S. diplomacy to engage emerging powers and build coalitions to support America's global priorities. That means she'll be doing a lot of the heavy work in dealing with Russia, India, Brazil and especially China. Also, as she underscored on her seven-nation tour of Africa, she plans to throw a much needed spotlight on the plight of women in the developing world. Effecting change for those women, though, means overcoming huge cultural roadblocks.


The bottom line is that Clinton has yet to prove herself. Apart from losing her cool at a now notorious Kinshasa press conference -- when a young man appeared to ask her about her husband's views -- she has made no major gaffes. But she still has no notable successes either. The jury is still out.