The Clinton factor

December 2, 2008 at 9:06 am | Posted in Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

clinton_obama_0107I’ve avoided writing anything about the mechanics of the transition for a number of reasons. First, until yesterday, only a few of the major appointments had been announced, and nobody’s time would’ve been enriched by reading post after post of hyped-up speculation. Second, I think it’s mistaken to think we can interpret what these appointments will mean for the policy content of Obama’s presidency; Rahm Emanuel might stalk the political centre like an obsessive pitbull, but one can’t imply from Obama appointing him Chief of Staff that this herals a retreat to the cautious Clintonomics of the 1990’s. His presidency will be judged by actions in office, not by what comes before.

But the blogosphere abhors a vacuum, and when there’s hits to be had, and millions of eager tag surfers demanding to know what it all means, it’s not surprising that my silence hasn’t been shared by the leading commentators. In this rarefied world, there are three distinct interpretations of the decisions made so far. There’s the ‘liberal overboard!’ argument pursued by Chris Bowers, who opines that Obama’s already begun to betray progressives with his appointments. Then there’s the ‘get a gip’ retort from Glenn Greenwald, who insists that he’s never been a true blue progressive, and is merely picking people who are moderate technocrats like himself. And then there’s the third way favoured by E.J. Dionne, whose well-sourced piece argues that the supposed ‘choice’ between the progressive and centrist policy factions is a false one, and Obama is more likely to govern using a synthesis of both.

Dionne’s interpretation certainly seems true in light of yesterday’s rollout of Obama’s national security team. By giving Samantha Power a role in shaping the US State Department and sending Susan Rice to the UN, Obama has put faith in two women with firm commitments to internationalism and human rights, and with General Jim Jones and the retained Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the guns ‘n ammo part of the government will be overseen by men who, for all their faults, at least understand the virtues of ‘soft power‘.

But the divide between progressives & centrists becomes a lot murkier when we look at the choice of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. The prospect of a Clinton in the State Department makes many liberals edgy. For one, whilst the differences between them were exaggerated, Hillary’s foreign policy record was part of what made her a non-starter for anti-war Democrats, and it seems somewhat perverse that she’s now preparing to take control of that department. Also, whatever differences there were can’t be waved away as irrellevant; there was enough clear water between them on issues relating to Cuba, Iran, nuclear proliferation and the use of cluster bombs to make Obama the more progressive candidate. And as Dylan Matthews points out here, the problem isn’t just that Clinton’s made some bad decisions on Iran and Iraq; it’s that she continues to be advised by people who – outside of their self-reinforcing Washington clique – no longer have much credibility.

On the other hand, Clinton is still a coalition-forming, multilateralist politician, she possesses one of the finest minds in the Democratic caucus and anyone who’s ever listened to her giving a Q&A will know that her attention to policy detail is extraordinary. We should also remember that this is a woman who, as first lady, did a significant amount to internationalise the cause of women’s rights and promote human rights in general. Lastly, the foreign policy she’ll be asked to execute won’t be her own. As Obama himself stated at the press event, the buck will stop with him and his appointees will be expected to carry out his instructions. Clinton’s actions will inevitably be a reflection on the new President, and those who showed faith in his abilities during the election certainly have no reason to question them just yet.

Anything beyond that is reaching too far into the unknown to be particularly helpful. I’ve no doubt that Clinton will be an extremely competent Secretary of State, but for her department to enact the kind of change which Obama promised during the election will require her to make some changes in herself. The new President can certainly bring that change out of her. The only question now is whether he will.

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  1. […] comment » There are a couple of footnotes which I think are worth tacking onto the end of my earlier post about Obama’s proposed national security team. The first of these comes from bensix at Back […]

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