So it will be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The senator from New York, who lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama because she supported authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq when her rival from Illinois opposed the move, will now be the face of President Obama’s foreign policy.
The final detail of the plan to put Clinton in charge of the State Department — an agreement by former President Bill Clinton to work with the Obama transition team to address potential conflicts of interest arising from his international financial dealings — has been settled. Obama made the announcement Monday morning in Chicago, at a press conference where he confirmed that he’ll retain Defense Secretary Robert Gates and name retired Marine General Jim Jones as his national security adviser, former deputy attorney general Eric Holder as attorney general, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary and Obama campaign foreign-policy aide Susan Rice as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
It was Clinton who stood at Obama’s side.
And the President-elect was as enthusiastic about his selection of the woman who tried to block his way to the Oval Office as he has been about any of his selections — perhaps more so.
Describing Clinton as “an American of tremendous stature who will have my complete confidence,” Obama said, “Hillary’s appointment is a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances. I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton is the right person to lead our State Department and to work with me in tackling this ambitious foreign policy agenda.”
Is this “change we can believe in”?
Not by any reasonable measure of the term.
But nor is this the end of the world as we know it — even if it could be the end of the illusion that some of Obama’s more romantic enthusiasts entertained with regard to his global view.
Obama and Clinton have never been radically different players when it comes to foreign affairs. In fact, when they served together in the Senate from January, 2005, until this year, they were precisely parallel players. Even when they were trying to distinguish themselves during the race for their party’s presidential nod, they amused serious debate watchers by exchanging “Well, I agree with Hillary” and “I actually agree with Barack” signals. And, of course, they did agree — to such an extent that, after Clinton poked in one debate at Obama for embracing diplomacy she read the polls, realized that everyone agreed with her rival and came into the next debate as an advocate of, um, diplomacy.
On the morning after their competition completed in June of this year, Obama and Clinton were stumbling over one another to sound alike when they appeared before the annual political vetting session that is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering in Washington. Obama told a somewhat skeptical crowd: “As president, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security. And I won’t wait until the waning days of my presidency.”
Though comment was an appropriate dig not just at President Bush but at former President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton followed the man who had defeated her to the podium, echoed his themes and then offered a blessing that carried a good deal of weight in that particular room: “I know Senator Obama understands what is at stake here,” she said. “It’s an honor to call him my friend, and let me be clear–I know Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel.”
That’s what makes the whole “Team of Rivals” discussion so comic.
Obama and Clinton were rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination because they both wanted the job. They were never really ideological rivals.
This is why, even as Obama and Clinton battled one another in the early caucuses and primaries, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold — the Senate’s most determined opponent of the war in Iraq, in particular, and the failed Washington consensus with regard to foreign policies, in general — chose not to make an endorsement.
While the Wisconsin Democrat quietly voted for Obama in his state’s February 19 Democratic primary, he did not come forward as an early of enthusiastic supporter of the supposedly anti-war contender. That’s because, as Feingold explained in several conversations with this reporter, he saw little real evidence that Obama and Clinton were staking out distinct positions.
Perhaps as significantly, Feingold saw something else.
Though he has long been at odds with Clinton — especially on campaign finance and ethics issues, but also on foreign policy — Feingold explains that he came to see the former first lady in a new light when they traveled together (along with Arizona Senator John McCain, Maine Senator Susan Collins and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham) on a 2005 Senate fact-finding mission to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Tunisia.
“Two things: One, she was incredibly well-prepared and well-informed. She knew the key players and the issues that were heating up in each of the countries we visited,” recalled Feingold. “Two, she was very well respected. When we landed in each country, this Senate delegation, she was the one that the generals and the officials were trying to talk to. She was the one they knew and respected.”
In a number of conversations we’ve had about key players in the Democratic party, Feingold, long an essential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has repeatedly returned to the point that Clinton is a very smart, very skilled player when it comes to foreign affairs. Even when he does not agree with Clinton, the Wisconsinite says, he recognizes her as someone who is more than ready to represent the United States on the global stage.
Bottom line: What Russ Feingold saw in Clinton was what Barack Obama saw in Clinton.
Obama is not assembling a team of rivals — at least not with the Clinton pick. He is selecting a fellow senator who he came to respect and even to regard somewhat fondly during the course of a difficult but not particularly destructive primary campaign. More importantly, he is selected someone who agrees with him on almost every significant global issues and who he is certain will be able Secretary of State.
No, the man who spent the past several days consulting by phone with outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, is not staking out bold new turf with his selection of a replacement for Rice. This is not fundamental change. But no one who paid serious attention to Obama’s campaigning, even in the early stages of the race, thought he was about fundamental change.