Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Clinton on the cards

In general I'm withholding judgement on Obama's new Presidency, at least until starts. Otherwise I'll get very confused, each news scrap given a significance beyond the sweep of events. Partly this is because I believe policy matters more than the personnel, but also because I need to ensure I've got enough distance not to retrospectively justify my decision to support Obama.

However, it's difficult not to comment on Hillary Clinton's political resurrection as Secretary of State. Those who know me will understand I am unlikely to greet this news with unbridled joy. In fact I need a little cuddle, right now, to shield me from a world that just became a slightly colder place.

Clinton undoubtedly has a constituency, but there is also a large pool of people who, frankly, can't stand her. As part of the political elite who's Presidential campaign conveyed an arrogance and indulged in dirty politics Clinton is someone whom Obama could easily leave out of his administration without recriminations. She certainly wouldn't have returned the favour if the shoe was on the other foot, that's for sure.

For me, there are three key questions this appointment raises;

  • Does this represent the change people voted for?
  • Who's foreign policy will the administration follow?
  • Who'll be the big cheese in the White House?
There will be a number of people out there who will have concerns about one or more of these questions and so I thought I'd start to explore them a little, albeit in a slightly more positive way than you ight expect;

Does this represent the change people voted for?

To answer this question we have to unpick why people voted for Barrack Obama. I believe that over arching theme was fairness and change, but what kind of change? Well, one way of looking at his new gang of front line politicians is to compare them to the United Colors of Benetton. There's certainly a freshening up going on right now.

However some are confused by the fact that instead of a left field, liberal cabinet Obama is creating a government "of all the talents" from the right and left of center. When he talked of unity he did not simply mean everyone should unite behind him - but that he was going to attempt to unify different strands of opinion, which is what he's doing.

For eight years America's top officials have been placemen, yes men, those hewn from the same stuff as Bush. Obama has refused to fill the top levels with Obama clones (if there could be such a thing) but has taken a more inclusive approach, which will inevitably mean including people I'm far less comfortable with.

One commentator said this was an "unruly roster of all-stars" and there is something consistent here. Whilst Obama's opponents tend to characterise him as someone who promises to single handedly deliver the promised land this was never the theme of his campaign. In reality the consistent refrain has been that of joint effort and the creation of a progressive movement from below.

A cabinet full of strong, independent characters is a risk - but one consistent with the message of empowerment. For a President to deliberately pick players who would be able to challenge him - that's an interesting move that displays a self confidence and a faith in the abilities of others that has been lacking over the last eight ideologically fallow years.

Who's foreign policy will the administration follow?

I think if Clinton had been given health they'd have been wide spread understanding of the move. Although a more minor role, Clinton's known for her passion on reforming health care in the US and, I think, she could have fitted with Obama's radical agenda in this area. Instead Clinton has been given a top foreign policy role, an area where the two had clear differences.

During the election campaign Clinton mocked and derided the idea of trying to build diplomatic bridges with those that Bush described as part of the axis of evil. Now she'll be in charge of doing just that. One of the most serious concerns will be whether we're getting Clinton's foreign policy or Obama's, and certain Joe Biden, who was chosen partly for his foreign policy expertise, will find it difficult to find a role in this picture.

However, in Clinton's acceptance speech she put an emphasis on diplomacy and creating "more partners and fewer adversaries" around the world. She added "The American people have demanded not just a new direction at home, but a new effort to renew America's standing in the world as a force for positive change," I'm reading that as a message to Obama's supporters that she is with the programme (now).

Given that one other option had been to have the lackluster John Kerry in the role I certainly have more faith in Clinton's greater ability to distinguish between her elbow and, cough, other parts of her anatomy, but it was never Clinton's competency that was my concern - rather her politics, her class and her instincts.

Who'll be the big cheese in the White House?

The very fact that Obama has gone through with this appointment when he didn't have to shows he's magnanimous in victory - can Hillary match that I wonder? This deal is certainly good for her, a leading role in Obama's administration is more high profile and powerful than being one Senator out of many.

Obama said that he was "a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions" and as one commentator said "It's a strong team – ideologically diverse, bipartisan, representative of a broad range of policy interests and for the most part committed to the goals that candidate Obama told American voters he'd pursue."

In this sense - because she's hardly the only controversial pick - Obama isn't creating a rival power base but a team of rivals over whom he will hold command. Bush could not have pulled this off, but it remains to be seen whether this works for our new President elect.

The Washington Post framed it this way; "Put simply, picking Clinton shows Obama's bigness - that his pledge to bring in the best and brightest regardless of their past political entanglements is more than just lip service." In a very real way any potential dissent that Clinton may have been willing to indulge over the next four years has been incorporated - making her implicated in the regime rather than an alternative to it.

I suspect this is a demonstration that Obama is, very much, the man in charge at the White House - what the implications are for policy, particularly international policy we shall have to nervously wait and see. It could be a good pick, but it's certainly a timely reminder that the progressive left can't sit back and wait but has to be willing to independently fight for what it believes in.


ModernityBlog said...


this was always the way it would be, even if YOU were in charge as President, you would be constrained by the system around you and the very deep hole that the Bush administration left.

the choice was really between Obama or Palin

and for anyone not into Guns, creationism, nukes or fringe right wing American politics then the choice was simple: Obama

that does not mean he is a Messiah or any where close, but he was a considerably better choice than Palin would have been (as VP, she would have taken over when McCain was incapacitated)

Jim Jay said...

I don't think Obama was *always* going to appoint Clinton - although I do think he was always going to have a broad range of people.

He's doing the right thing by having a set of strong players rather than simply Obama people but it doesn't necessarily mean that every appointment was either obvious or inevitable.

Not sure why you're trying to convince me that Obama was better than Palin though - I supported Obama down the line.

ModernityBlog said...

"but it doesn't necessarily mean that every appointment was either obvious or inevitable."

Nor would I argue as much, but BROADLY speaking his room for maneuver is rather limited.

I suspect appointing Clinton was partly to do with the old adage of her "being in the tent pissing outwards, rather than being outside of the tent pissing inwards"

scott redding said...

The West Wing view: Santos has picked Vinick (without Vinick's experience).

It's good that the US has both a UN ambassador (he may beef up Rice's duties with HIV responsibilities from USAID) and a Secretary of State who are women.

I think it's surprising that she's been manoevered so smoothly into accepting it. It takes away her power base as the junior senator from NY, and her future as a potential Senate Majority Leader.

The move also takes Bill Clinton's rogue speechmaking and foundation donations out of the equation of an Obama presidency. If anything, it makes it much easier to access Bill Clinton for advice, and to have him start behaving like a former President (make him an envoy on certain issues, China?).

I think if she had been given Health, it would have potentially been a rehash of her failure the first time around.

Biden could easily fit into this situation. I mean, say Clinton takes on Middle East issues for the first year (Iraq withdrawal, Israel/Palestine), and Biden takes South Asia. There's plenty of work to go around.

Rayyan said...

Clinton is no Vinnick. She isn't half the strategic mind Vinnick is (or would be, if he was real). Plus she has no significant foreign policy experience to speak of - landing in Bosnia "under sniper fire" doesn't count for the obvious reasons - and has displayed terrible foreign policy judgement with her vote on Iraq, which she continually refused to acknowledge was wrong let alone apologise for.

Oh yeah, just a few months ago, she said she would "obliterate Iran". Yes, it's Obama calling the shots - but as the otherwise odious Christopher Hitchens said on MSNBC, any other SoS would be able to do the job and think only about their job. With Clinton, she is first and foremost thinking about herself, and secondly her husband. Let's not even get started on his dodgy connections.

Either a deal was cut to ensure she didn't cause a ruckus at the Convention, or Obama just took his chief rival for 2012 out of the running in case things go badly for him between now and then. Every time he has done something which appears odd or ill-thought-out, he's proven himself to be a hugely intelligent strategist. Let's hope and pray this wasn't his first and biggest mistake!

Rayyan said...

And there's no way he needed to bring her on to satisfy those people who voted for her in the primaries: I'd wager 99% of those "18 million" (not that we know the exact number) came home to the Democratic ticket on Nov 4th. The party, and the country, are united behind the President-Elect.

Richardson would have been better, but it's probably too early to judge. I just wish we could all forget about the Clintons and their compulsive lying and psychodrama... leave it in the 1990s!

scott redding said...

I wonder if Richardson should be at a post like Commerce.

Maybe it's a psychological move by Obama. Clinton doesn't have to prove herself as a Senator, but she'll have a new hunger to prove herself at State?

The comments here are interesting ... if only because they are just three weeks ago.

scott redding said...

A few good observations about the Obama transition: "Normally, you appoint at least one major donor to a prize cabinet spot. Obama hasn't. Normally, you clear the decks and bring in a team you know will be loyal to you. Obama hasn't done that. Normally, you don't deliberately create two, equally robust centers of power and task them with sharing one portfolio; Obama egregiously violated this rule by appointing Tim Geithner to Treasury and asking Larry Summers to be National Economics Council director. (Can't he have his cake and eat it too? This is like having his cake... and eating three more cakes at the same time.) Obama seems to take pride seeding these conflicts, out of which he will grow consensus."