Should Barack Obama offer the Secretary of State position to Hillary Clinton? And should she take it?
No, and no.
A little background is in order. For most of this nation’s history, the Secretary of State was the 2nd most powerful executive in the nation, behind only the President. That preeminence was largely because the Secretary served as the face of the nation in all diplomatic matters. Indeed, the position was often viewed as a steppingstone to the presidency. But State’s preeminence began to erode as the presidency entered its modern era beginning with FDR’s election in 1932. Roosevelt served as his own chief diplomat, particularly during World War II when he personally conducted war time negotiations in direct consultation with Stalin, Churchill and other foreign leaders. His Secretary of State Cordell Hull did not even attend any of the wartime conferences of the “Big Three”.
The Secretary of State’s diminishment was hastened by the creation of new foreign-policy related positions through the 1947 National Security Act, including the Secretary of Defense, the CIA director, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and – eventually – what became the national security adviser. All competed with the State Department for the president’s ear in the foreign, military and intelligence policy realm. In particular, the NSC adviser, bolstered by an increasingly bigger and more specialized staff, and with no other institutional allegiances, gradually assumed the primary role as the president’s foreign policy assistant, charged with coordinating the foreign policy process on his behalf. At the same time, presidents continued to view State as a bastion of timid “striped-pants cookie pushers” – career diplomats whose excessive caution was matched only by their lack of imagination. Kennedy openly complained about State’s inability to come up with creative foreign policy initiatives. He was the first president to give the NSC adviser a West Wing office, and he established a Situation Room in the ground floor of the White House to receive incoming diplomatic and intelligence cables. No longer did presidents need to rely on State for communications from overseas. Increasingly presidents turned to their own, White House-based national security staff to develop and oversee the implementation of foreign policy. Nixon simply cut his Secretary of State William Rogers out of the decisionmaking loop altogether and instead relied on his national security adviser Henry Kissinger to conduct foreign diplomacy. Eventually he gave Kissinger both jobs – Secretary of State AND national security adviser. And so the die was cast. Cyrus Vance resigned as Secretary of State after Carter continually spurned his advice in favor of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s recommendations, particularly when it came to using force to secure the release of Americans held hostage by Iran. Similarly, Ronald Reagan ignored his Secretary of State George Schultz’s objection to the arms-for-hostage trade with Iran. James Baker had a close personal relationship with George H.W. Bush prior to entering the presidency, and worked well with Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. But neither Warren Christopher nor Madeline Albright replicated that type of relationship with Clinton. And Colin Powell lasted one term as Bush’s Secretary of State before finally resigning, to be replaced by Bush’s former national security adviser Condi Rice.
The lesson is clear. The most influential Secretaries in the post-war era either have had a strong personal relationship with the presidents entering the office, as Baker did with George H. W. Bush, or they developed that relationship, sometimes by serving first as the president’s national security adviser, before moving to State, as was the case with Kissinger and Rice. In contrast, those secretaries who have lacked that relationship have tended to be marginalized, particularly if they were viewed as too willing to rely on input of the career diplomats at State for advice or if they sought to assert a more prominent foreign policy role.
Given this history, why would Barack Obama offer Clinton the position? They remain political rivals, although that rivalry was muted by their joint desire to defeat the Republican presidential ticket. But it is clear from their nomination fight that they are not of like minds when it comes to foreign policy. Moreover, they lack the personal affinity that is necessary to overcome the centrifugal institutional forces that cause presidents and secretaries of state to grow apart. The more effective Clinton is at pushing her own foreign policy agenda, the less likely that Obama will include her in his inner circle. But it is unlikely that Clinton will want the job if it means she is merely Obama’s mouthpiece.
It may be, however, that by appointing Clinton Secretary of State, Obama hopes to marginalize her, much as Powell was viewed as a peripheral player in Bush’s administration. If that is Obama’s motive, however, it is too little too late – historically, the easiest way to neuter a political rival is to make him the Vice President. It is what Kennedy did with Johnson, Ford with Rockefeller, and Reagan with Bush. This tactic would have done double duty for Obama because Clinton’s vote-getting ability among key constituencies almost surely would have increased his final popular vote total, making it easier for him to claim a true mandate. As it is, he missed that opportunity.
Nonetheless, although Obama missed his primary chance to isolate Clinton in the vice president’s position, where he could both keep tabs on her and prevent her from meddling in the policy process, while taking advantage of her support in the general election, he might still see some benefit in removing her from the Senate and trying to isolate her at State. (This assumes Clinton would have taken the V.P. job – a big assumption.)
But appointing her Secretary of State is much riskier than making her VP. If he appoints her Secretary of State, she immediately assumes a more autonomous and more visible position than the vice presidency from which to push her own more hawkish policy views. And, much as Richard Armitage did so well for Colin Powell, she could use her staff and her strong media ties to undercut Obama’s foreign policy through careful leaking while appearing to stay publicly above the fray. She will have frequent opportunities to testify on Capitol Hill, and public forums across the globe to lay out her version of U.S. foreign policy. In contrast, as VP she would have no such opportunities, short of the occasional state funeral and ribbon-cutting ceremony. And, if necessary, she can resign her post as Secretary of State to dramatize a difference in principle with Obama, thus leveraging the position and resignation to set herself up as the alternative leader of the party. In contrast, VP’s never resign, no matter how isolated or impotent they become. They are essentially trapped, their influence entirely dependent on the president’s willingness to throw them the occasional bone. As Dick Cheney admits, his power derives entirely from George Bush’s desire to have him play an integral policy role. And as Bush has acknowledged, he was only willing to do that because Cheney had no electoral ambitions of his own. That wouldn’t be the case with VP Clinton.
In short, appointing Clinton Secretary of State is not a good move for Obama, even – particularly if – he is seeking marginalize her.
Nor is it a good move for Clinton. By staying in the Senate, she retains political autonomy, while still exercising real leverage over the Obama policy process. More importantly, perhaps, she retains leadership in the party and remains well-positioned to challenge Obama in 2012 should he falter in the next four years. At the very least, she should not even consider accepting State without first knowing who will be Obama’s national security adviser and how Obama expects to utilize that person. History suggests it is the NSC adviser, and not the Secretary of State, who exercises the greatest foreign policy influence on the president. Without knowing who that is, Clinton would be wise to reject the offer.
Since it makes little sense from either Clinton’s or Obama’s perspective to make her Secretary of State, why are unnamed sources on Obama’s staff leaking the idea? It may be because they assume she won’t take it. By offering the position to her, then, they mollify her supporters and put the onus on her to turn it down by taking herself out of the running without a formal offer being made.
Whatever the motive, history suggests that both Obama and Clinton will be better off if she remains in the Senate. If they are both smart, she won’t be the next Secretary of State.