Should Hillary Clinton become the next Secretary of State?

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.


  1. Travis Jacobs notes another reason why historically the Secretary of State was such a prestigious position: as of 1886, he was next in line, after the vice president, to become president, a situation that lasted until Truman persuaded Congress to change the line of succession again in 1947. Travis writes:

    “Hi Matt,

    A very quick comment or qualification. In 1886 the Secy State Office (Bayard) was prominent not for diplomacy but because of the Presidential Succession Act of 1886: Secy State in line after VP. Granted Secy State loses prominence under FDR, but the 1947 Presidential Succession Act places Secy behind Speaker of House and President pro tempore of the Senate. (After the 1946 election of the Republican 80th Congress, and with H.S.Truman president and no VP, it was suggested, only half in jest, that Truman appoint leading Republican Senator Arthur Vanderberg Secy State and that then HST resign, thereby making Vandenberg President. All this leads to 1947 Act (and Speaker of the House was a Republican).

  2. Matt, curious that Clinton would have been such a great choice for Veep and not a good SecState. As VP she couldn’t be fired but she could as SecState. She really has no where to go in the Senate, there are too many senior democrats ahead of her.

    I wonder if this deal wasn’t cut before the campaign began, as an assurance that the Cllintons would work hard for OB’s election. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it included and option on the first Supreme Court vacancy.

    And by the way, this would go a long way to heal the wounds of the 18 million who voted for Clinton for the nomination.

    Finally, she can win the Nobel Prize when she cuts a deal with Iran, get Israel to make peace with the Palestinians and takes our missiles out of Poland. And with such a large staff, she can keep a lot of eyes on Bill to make sure he doesn’t wander.

  3. PS And Hillary could take all those 3 AM phone calls and Obama could get a good nights sleep.

  4. Just a side note on Jack’s mention of Hillary for Supreme Court: I’d bet a lot against that. Obama was a constitutional law professor – I can’t imagine that he’d take a politician over a jurist or scholar who has focused their career on constitutional law. I’m really excited to see the type of folks he ends of nominating, as it should be different than the typical strategies.

  5. Jack – The benefit to putting Clinton on the ticket as VP is her vote-getting power. Remember, Obama got fewer votes in Ohio than Kerry did. My guess is with Hillary on the ticket, he wins more of those disaffected white, middle to lower income blue collar workers. Exit polls suggest he lost about 5% of potentially Democratic supporters who backed Hillary in the primaries. Of course, this would have to be weighted against any votes he might have lost with her on the ticket. We can’t be certain, but at worse it’s a wash – at best, he increases his popular vote margin of victory with her on the ticket.

    As Sec. of State, in contrast, he gets all her negatives with none of the corresponding positives. And while it’s true that you can’t fire the VP, it’s also true that the VP has no independent base of support. As Biden will discover, the VP’s influence depends entirely on how willing the President is to expand your portfolio and allow meaningful input. At State, in contrast, you become the de facto face of the nation in most international forums, so your opinion matters and is courted by the media, who will always be looking for signs of differences between Obama and Clinton. And you have institutional leverage by virtue of running the State Department. And the resignation factor cuts both ways – VP’s can’t resign on principle, but Secretaries of State can (and have!) to make a political point. The biggest issue, of course, is that Clinton ran against Obama by touting her foreign policy credentials, and by taking pretty strong positions contrary to his regarding leaving Iraq. If he nominates her, after surrounding himself in the White House with former Clinton aides, he pretty much signals that he won the election, but she’s won the policy debate; his movement to the center is now complete.

    It’s true that Hillary lacks seniority in the Senate, but the modern Senate is much less about seniority than it used to be; entrepreneurial junior Senators can always find a platform to heighten their visibility. And there’s always the Governor’s position in NY, if she wants it.

    I very much doubt any deal was cut before the nomination. It is simply too risky to even hint at making promises of this type before the election is won. Talk about measuring the drapes! At best, he sounded her out about the VP job and she signaled that she wasn’t interested.

    As for the Supreme Court – she has said she has no interest. Interestingly (and this gets to Jason’s point), there is a line of argument among political scientists suggesting that the reason court politics have become so polarized is that increasingly presidents have been nominating legal scholars, rather than politicians, to the bench. The problem is that legal scholars tend to get fixated on legal principles that lead to extreme positions, while politicians are better able to split differences and build working coalitions. To put it another way, we are better off with O’Connors than with Scalia’s (see their positions on Roe v. Wade, Lawrence vs. Texas, etc. ) From this perspective, Clinton would make the ideal supreme court justice. But she doesn’t seem interested.

  6. Hi Matt,

    I have been arguing the same thing to my friends and colleagues, who variously love and hate Hillary. I think there is also the bad politics of it – both Obama and the Clintons have their own cadres of supporters, who often don’t see eye to eye (the DLC comes to mind here).

    But regarding Hillary and Clintons, they do have a useful role that they can play, no? The SCOTUS idea as it is, with her lacking interest, I would think AG would better play to her strengths and qualifications. On domestic issues, especially as related to the types of cases DOJ would pursue, Sen. Clinton and Pres-E. Obama do have serious levels of agreement. Moreover, she is independent enough that she won’t be seen as an Alberto Gonzales-type yes-man. What do you think? AG Clinton? Would it be good for her and for Obama?

  7. Well, judging from recent events, they haven’t read your blog recently, and they are not particularly smart (although according to the Times official announcements are after Thanksgiving, so I suppose it’s not absolute yet, but say for the sake of discussion that it is true). Aside from your marginalization point, which of course could happen, I’m curious about Hillary as secretary of state in terms of qualifications, reputation and value. Is there a possibility that these two could form a working, although potentially not close, relationship? If she is not distinctly marginalized, but rather valued for presenting opposing opinions during the policy formation, while ultimately knowing she has to sell his decisions – is it a smart intellectual choice for a SoS?

  8. It now (on Novemeber 23rd) looks as though Hillary Clinton will be the Secretary of State. And so Barack Obama will probably get two back-seat drivers steering policy in opposition to the President’s own desired direction i.e. Hillary & Bill Clinton. Will he have the strength of will or the time to over-ride them? Why would he want to have that hassle?

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