Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Closest of Frenemies

Were the idea, having coming this far and become this public, to fall apart now, the ensuing humiliation would be grievous and mutual for Obama and Clinton. Too grievous and too mutual, that is, for them to let it happen.

That was exactly what I felt soon after word was leaked: it would not have been made public if there were doubt on either side. And every pundit has an opinion, and confidence therein, as to what the appointment means: a disaster, a stroke of genius, little in between.

But what strikes me as most interesting about it—along with the other appointments Obama has made so far—is what it suggests about the president-elect, from his conception of his embryonic administration to the size and contours of his ego.

It strikes me that most commentators are so sure of their opinions, that they are not taking time to reflect. This commentator does some reflecting. After outlining the commentary of Tom Friedman, David Ignatius and David Broder (many at MSNBC and CNN quote Friedman as if he were a sage, rather than a columnist), he posits the strengths of the appointment.

But for Obama and his inner circle—notably Rahm Emanuel, his new chief of staff, whose fingerprints are all over the Clinton gambit—Hillary brings an array of strengths to the table, and many of what critics see as her problematic qualities can be viewed instead as assets. Her existing relationships with world leaders and her global star power would allow her to walk into foreign capitals and deal with the president or prime minister on level footing. And in the face of a cratering economy likely to consume the first year (or more) of Obama’s term, handing off the foreign-policy legwork to a savvy, tough, high-profile surrogate with roundly acknowledged expertise on the relevant issues holds no small appeal.

And more:

Then there are the more subtle advantages to picking Hillary. Foreign policy is prone to internecine conflict in any administration, with the secretaries of State and Defense, the national-security adviser, and often the vice-president all jockeying for position. And Obama’s regime—with Joe Biden in the building and Robert Gates likely to remain atop the Pentagon—will be no exception. But Clinton is much closer to Biden than most people realize; that campaign gaffe of his about her making a better V.P. than him was more like a Freudian slip. And Gates, like many Republicans, is said to respect Hillary immensely; indeed, no Democrat is regarded more highly by the opposition and the generals.

Good points about Clinton and Biden. Fascinating, and, to me, surprising how highly regarded she is.

Little of this, it should be noted, is true of the other shortlist candidates to run State. John Kerry and Bill Richardson are both fine men, qualified on paper for the job. But Senator Pompous has long had an intensely competitive relationship with Biden (“They’re like brothers—in every sense,” reports a Biden confidant) and is unbeloved by the GOP. And does anyone really think that Governor Doofus (or, if you prefer James Carville’s formulation, Governor Judas) possesses anything close to Clinton’s candlepower? Or gonads, for that matter? You can bet your last dollar that Emanuel, for one, does not.

Kerry? Mistake. And I love Bill Richardson, but I can see the points made.

Finally, there’s the Machiavellian angle: Obama playing the prince by pulling the old king and queen close. As Dee Dee Myers observed, her former boss is sure to cause Obama heartburn whether he is in the huddle or on the sidelines, musing about the new president’s (inevitable) missteps. “The question is not how to keep him at arm’s length,” she blogged, “but rather how best to harness his prodigious talent in service of shared goals, rather than political mischief.” The odds of doing that—and, incidentally, banishing any stray fantasies of a nomination challenge in 2012 from HRC’s mind—go up by putting his wife on Team Obama.

Bubba won't be disrespecting the Obama Administration too much if Hillary is part of it. Very good point. One Chris Matthews is too hysterical to consider, let alone think of.

The obvious question is why Hillary would do it. What’s she thinking? What’s her game? No doubt part of the reason her people began leaking word that she’s not certain she wants the gig was to cushion the blow in case the Bubba vet turned ugly.

Spin is a Clinton game, and they play it well.

Assuming that Clinton and Obama get to yes, Eric Holder is a go for attorney general, and the Gates assumption holds, the upper echelon of Obama’s Cabinet will be nearly full: only one of the big four, Treasury, remains an unleaked mystery. The Clinton choice matters here. With Obama already catching flak from his base for being too Clinton-centric, Hillary at State probably reduces Larry Summers’s chances of winding up at Treasury. The more likely pick seems to be Jon Corzine, whose stock has risen despite some mildly hairy vetting issues, as Obama transition officials have come to think that public-communications skills are key to the job in a time of economic chaos. (“See Hank Paulson? That’s what we don’t want,” says one person involved in the transition.)

Treasury didn't seem such a mystery: Gaithner or Summers. And Gaithner is it. Summers is inside the White House. So the assumption about Corzine was wrong.

So what do all these and Obama’s other appointments tell us? First, that the “team of rivals” meme is vastly overdone. Maybe Obama will appoint one more Republican (Chuck Hagel as U.N. ambassador?), but by and large his administration will be filled with politically like-minded folk. His White House will be chockablock with players (David Axelrod, Pete Rouse, Valerie Jarrett, Jim Messina) central to his campaign, his Cabinet heavy with elected officials (former senator Tom Daschle for Health and Human Services, Arizona governor Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius for Labor) who endorsed him early in the primaries.

The liberals bought that meme, as did pundits. Obama underestimates what Lincoln faced; why bring in Hillary? Missed the point.

The thread that binds these names together isn’t ideology but a devotion to a kind of hard-nosed, even ruthless pragmatism. Moreover, Obama’s appointments to critical posts reflect an inclination toward people with deep institutional expertise and major-league political chops, who can effectively drive or implement an agenda.

Rather than a Marxist, a socialist, a lightweight or naive, Obama is proving he is shrewd, and a great politician. While Palin is speaking in front of a turkey processing station, he is organizing his government.

Picking Emanuel was all about mastering Congress, Daschle about actually passing health-care reform (as opposed to think-tanking the perfect, elegant policy solution, à la the Clinton effort in 1993–94). Keeping Gates is about getting out of Iraq without letting the country descend into chaos. The putative Clinton pick carries hints of a similar raison d’être. You can easily imagine Obama telling Hillary: A deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians—go bring that sucker home.

If she does bring it off, her name goes into the history books, for having accomplished something even President Bubba could not and did not.

But choosing Hillary demonstrates more than merely get-her-done, mission-driven hardheadedness. It demonstrates that Obama has finally learned the political power of magnanimity—or least the perception thereof.

See also Lieberman, Joseph, Senator.

It demonstrates strength, whereas selecting her as his running mate would have displayed the opposite (the stories would all have been about how he did it because he had no choice). And it demonstrates a level of self-confidence remarkable even in someone who just won the presidency.

Shrewd: to make a choice because he wanted to, not because it seemed right. Shrewd: astute: marked by practical hardheaded intelligence.

One of the cardinal rules of the Beltway is that you never appoint a subordinate who, for all practical purposes, can’t be fired. Colin Powell was very nearly such an appointment, and George W. Bush came to regret it. Hillary Clinton would be another. Obama is wagering that Clinton will do his bidding and not pursue her own agenda because she will see that her future—in electoral politics, in how she’s treated in the history books—will be bound up with his success. He’s not just bringing her inside the tent; he is making her a tent-pole. This strategy is either shrewd or delusional. But timid it is not.

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