Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hillary as Secretary of State?

I had “retired” this blog back in August when Barack Obama wisely chose Joe Biden for his running mate but now that Hillary Clinton has surfaced as a possible choice for Secretary of State it is worth revisiting the issue of whether Obama should share power with Hillary (and Bill) Clinton.

While choosing Clinton as SOS is different from choosing her to be “Vice-President” (I use quotes because the campaign to force Obama to choose her is a Vice-President was really seeking a co-Presidency), many of the reasons why it would be a bad decision are the same.

First, how is it different? Well, for one, the SOS serves more or less “at the pleasure” of the President, meaning it is easier to get rid of the person serving as Secretary of State and it has been done countless times while there is no record of any Vice-President being cashiered, except during the next election. The last instance of a VP change within the same President’s Administration was 1944, when FDR’s lack of enthusiasm for Vice-President Henry Wallace opened the door for the Democratic convention to choose Harry Truman (arguably Spiro Agnew is a more recent example but he was forced to resign for legal reasons). So, Hillary would be on a shorter lease as SOS.

Second, being SOS would limit Hillary’s ability to co-opt Obama on domestic policy, but this is only somewhat reassuring since too many people minimize the importance of foreign policy, which gets us to some of the problems with Hillary as SOS.

The reasons Hillary is a bad choice are still the same. She and her husband have no record of playing second fiddle to anyone else. If her campaign demonstrated anything else, it was the sense that the Clintons feel entitled to power. Yes, she played the good soldier on the campaign trail in the fall after Obama was nominated, but so has almost every other losing candidate for a Presidential nomination. The tendency of the Clintons to want to set “their own” foreign policy is going to be strong and by choosing Hillary, Barack is going to open himself up to the question of who is running the show. One article in the Politico came close to making it explicit: “Clinton would be most attractive if Obama concludes that he will have to focus his early days in office on the domestic economy, and will have to essentially outsource heavy-duty foreign travel to his secretary of state.” This is a VERY bad impression to leave in public. Foreign policy is really the President’s number one responsibility. Yes, “the economy” is high in the voters’ minds right now and it is always fun and easy to bash the rich and talk about helping the middle class and poor, but truth be told, the President has a limited ability to affect macroeconomic trends and even then, he needs agreement from Congress. His hand is much freer and his direct impact much greater on foreign affairs. The President could order withdrawal from Iraq or bombing of Iran in minutes (Congress would weigh in at some point but he could initiate this on his own). Second, if terrorists were to set off a nuke in an American city, the composition of the economic stimulus package is pretty well moot. This is not to suggest the former is any more likely with Hillary as SOS, but rather, foreign policy is not something to be “outsourced” to Hillary or anyone else.

Certainly many who resisted Hillary as VP, especially given the obnoxious demands of her most bitter supporters, might be open to her as SOS. Since this idea appears to have originated with Obama, obviously his supporters don’t feel he is being pressured. However, the downsides aren’t escaping notice. Hillary’s foreign policy experience is really rather thin as the New York Times notes “Greg Craig, one of Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy aides, detailed in a memorandum in March what the campaign called evidence of Mrs. Clinton’s lack of foreign policy experience. Another Obama adviser, Susan Rice, said in a conference call during that period that the ability to handle a 3 a.m. crisis phone call was not something that could be acquired “merely by being married to a commander in chief.” An article in the Washington Post also pointed out that she and, more importantly, Bill would have to undergo a vetting process. The same article reported that Bill Richardson and John Kerry, whose foreign policy credentials are far more impressive than Hillary’s, are also in the running.

All of this may be nearly a done deal, according to some press reports and certainly the fact this has made it into the news and the Obama people aren't really slapping it down, it doesn’t augur well. All I can say I hope Barack knows what he is getting himself into.

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