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?
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.