When will Hillary Clinton resign as Secretary of State? The question is prompted by yesterday’s exchange with my colleague Bert Johnson re: the difference between nomination and “resignation” politics (and I apologize to Bert for being unnecessarily argumentative in response to his typically astute insights). Some of you may recall that on Jan. 19, during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, Jill Biden blurted out that her husband Joe was given the choice of being either Vice President or the Secretary of State in the Obama administration (see video here). According to Jill, Joe Biden took the Vice Presidency not because it was his preferred choice, but in deference to his wife who did not want Joe spending the next four years away from his family while globetrotting as the nation’s chief diplomat. Joe Biden, who was sitting next to Jill, laughed good-naturedly but did not deny the story. Almost immediately, however, the Obama team released a statement denying that the Secretary of State position was ever formally offered to Biden.
What is going on here? One explanation is that after years of living together, Jill has absorbed Joe’s foot-in-mouth disease and that, as with her husband, every thought that enters her mind exits her mouth. But I suspect she’s smarter than that. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that she knew exactly what she was doing in releasing this information one day before the inauguration. The statement was the first salvo in the inevitable jockeying for position that takes place at the start of every administration. In one respect, Vice Presidents are at a distinct disadvantage in this battle because they have no constitutional or statutory-based portfolio (other than breaking ties in the Senate); their entire influence is predicated on perceptions regarding the strength of their relationship with the President, and his willingness to delegate responsibilities to the Vice President. Secretaries of State, on the other hand, sit astride key action-forcing channels – particularly the daily flow of messages to and from overseas embassies – that necessitate their involvement, at least nominally, in some aspects of the foreign policy process. Certainly it guarantees them media coverage. This struggle is particularly pronounced in the Obama administration, however, because Biden’s perceived strength is foreign policy – the same portfolio Clinton claims as Secretary of State. Jill’s public statement, then, can be viewed as a not-so-veiled assertion that her husband’s personal ties to Obama trump Clinton’s claim as Secretary of State to run foreign policy; it was Biden, not Clinton, who was Obama’s first choice to be Secretary of State.
Note that this struggle transcends personalities – it is built into the institutional fabric of the modern presidency. By most accounts, Clinton and Biden got along quite well in the Senate. No matter – the history of previous presidencies suggests they will clash repeatedly in the coming months. Eventually, because Vice Presidents do not resign, Clinton will be forced to. Recall the previous Vice Presidents in the modern era who were chosen by Presidents largely on the basis of their foreign policy expertise. Al Haig, the self-proclaimed “vicar” of foreign policy during the Reagan administration, resigned early in Reagan’s first term, in part because Vice President George H. W. Bush was selected over Haig to head the president’s “crisis management” team. More recently, of course, Secretary of State Colin Powell clashed repeatedly with Vice President Dick Cheney regarding foreign policy issues. Powell, too, eventually resigned, while Cheney stayed on.
In an earlier post (see here) I traced the diminishment of the Secretary of State’s position since World War II. That diminishment, I argued, is driven by the rise of competing actors, particularly the national security adviser, that have eroded the State Department’s traditional preeminence as the face of American diplomacy. But when the Vice President also claims a seat at the foreign policy table, the jockeying to sit at the president’s right hand as the primary source of foreign policy advice becomes even more intense.
So, if history repeats itself, when will Clinton resign? Let’s look at the numbers. There have been 65 previous secretaries of state who, on average, served 3.3 years before leaving office (the unit of analysis here is years, not months). Of course, this average is somewhat misleading, since it ignores the fact that the available time in office differs, depending on the length of the presidential term, date of appointment, etc. To simplify the analysis, and to make it most relevant, let us look only at the 18 post-FDR “modern” Secretaries beginning with James Byrnes, listed in the table below.
|Name (President)||Dates in Office||Tenure (years)|
|James Byrnes (Truman)||7.3.45-1.21.47||1.5|
|George Marshall (Truman)||1.22.47-1.20.49||2|
|Dean Acheson (Truman)||1.21.49-1.20-53||4|
|John Foster Dulles (Eisenhower)||1.20.53-4.22.59||6.25|
|Christian Herter (Eisenhower)||4.23.59-1.20.61||1.75|
|Dean Rusk (JFK-LBJ)||1.20.61-1.20.69||8|
|William Rogers (Nixon)||1.20.69-9.3.73||4.67|
|Henry Kissinger (Nixon-Ford)||9.21.73-1.20.77||3.33|
|Cyrus Vance (Carter)||1.20.77-4.27.80||3.33|
|Ed Muskie (Carter)||4.28.80-1.20.81||.67|
|Al Haig (Reagan)||1.22.81-7.5.82||1.5|
|George Schultz (Reagan)||7.16.82-1.20.89||6.5|
|James Baker (Bush I)||1.22.89-8.23.92||3.67|
|Lawrence Eagleburger (Bush I)||12.8.92-1.20.93||.33|
|Warren Christopher (Clinton)||1.20.93-1.17.97||4|
|Madeleine Albright (Clinton)||1.23.97-1.19.01||4|
|Colin Powell (Bush II)||1.20.01-1.26.05||4|
|Condi Rice (Bush II)||1.26.05-1.20.09||4|
The average tenure of this group is 3.5 years. Only one – Dean Rusk – served for the entire length of the president’s time in office. (Actually, Rusk’s 8-year tenure from 1961-69 spanned two presidencies: JFK’s and LBJ’s). Nine – half of the total – served at least a full four-year presidential term, if not more. Of the eight appointed at the start of the president’s first term (I don’t count the Truman, Johnson or Ford presidencies here), five made it through the entire first term.
This recap suggests to me that we should place the over/under for Clinton’s time in office at four years. To make it more interesting, I’ll offer a free “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt to the person who predicts to the month – without going over – Clinton’s resignation date. The betting remains open for one week. Even if you don’t want to predict the actual date, let me know if you take the over or the under, and why.
Who said political science can’t be fun?