11.14.08

How Obama Wooed Hillary

The negotiations, the leaks—and the conflicting advice Sen. Clinton is receiving on whether she should join the new administration.

Barack Obama held a secret rendezvous with Hillary Clinton in Chicago on Thursday to discuss the prospect of her becoming his Secretary of State. Although no promises were made on either side, a senior source who knows the players on both sides confirms that both the president elect and Mrs. Clinton are seriously considering her joining what would become a “Team of Rivals.”

“She wasn’t doing holiday shopping, I can tell you that,” said the source. “Nor was she visiting her mother, who doesn’t live there any more.”

The Chicago meeting is the culmination of a number of conversations between the two about the New York senator joining the Obama administration. Still to be defined is how the role of Secretary of State would be defined if Mrs. Clinton accepted the post.

“I would tell her not to do it,” said a close Clinton ally. “Never, ever, count the Clintons out. Never assume that they will quietly drift away into the sunset.”

“With the economy in the tank, Obama has at least two hard years of domestic problems to sort out,” said the source. “She would take the load off his shoulders. She is hugely qualified for the job, there is no doubt. But she needs to know who his national security adviser would be and how they would work together, things like that.”

Tipped to become Obama’s national security adviser is Jim Steinberg, who was the deputy national security adviser in President Clinton's administration. But if another, more prominent name were suggested for the position, Mrs. Clinton may demur.

“Remember, Henry Kissinger was the national security adviser in Nixon’s administration,” said the source. “No one remembers who Nixon’s Secretary of State was because Kissinger was so all powerful.”

Vice president elect Joe Biden, who has well established foreign policy credentials and might have liked to involve himself in foreign policy, is understood to have agreed to adopt a broader portfolio of duties in the new administration.

Apprehension has been expressed in the Clinton camp about the leaking of the face to face discussions, which was thought to have unnecessarily raised the stakes in what is proving a delicate conversation between the two top Democrats who so fiercely fought for the presidential nomination. The role Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, played in allowing news of the event to leak is causing concern.

News that Obama is considering giving one of the most important posts in his new administration to his fiercest rival, who won a near identical number of votes as he did in the Democratic primary, is a blow to Senator and 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry, who was the favorite to be awarded the State Department by Obama and who is known to covet the job.

But Kerry is currently in line to chair the powerful foreign relations committee in the Senate. If he were to be made Secretary of State, the committee would fall to Russ Feingold, the senator for Wisconsin, whose vote against the Patriot Act placed him among the most liberal senators.

“Feingold is as liberal on foreign policy as Obama said he was during the primary. Now Obama is president elect he has become more hawkish,” said the source. Feingold is thought not reliable enough an ally to the president when it comes to acting tough with Iran, or in managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The talks with Mrs. Clinton echo similar discussions Obama has been having with Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, whom the president elect would like to remain at his post to provide continuity and show he is non-partisan, particularly over the running of the Iraq War. However, Gates is insisting upon keeping his existing staff; Obama would prefer him to take on some of his appointees.

While the source stressed that there was no negotiation going on—“You serve the president on his terms; you cannot demand terms”—the fact that Mrs. Clinton was prepared to fly to Chicago to discuss her role with the president elect shows that she is taking seriously the prospect of joining the administration. But she is receiving conflicting advice about whether accepting a post would be to her political advantage.

“You have to ask yourself, what would she do next?” said the source. Mrs. Clinton would be obliged to abandon her New York Senate seat, which offers her the perfect springboard to make another run at the presidency down the line. If she remained in the Senate, she would be one of the Democratic party’s most prominent and powerful leaders who would ensure the successful passage of Obama’s legislation program, particularly her old cause of universal health care.

As Secretary of State, however, she would serve at the president’s whim and after a period of time might end up without a job having given up her firm political base in Congress and in her powerful adopted home state of New York. The role of Secretary of State could be redefined when circumstances changed, leaving Mrs. Clinton conspicuously powerless, as George W.Bush marginalized Colin Powell.

Mrs. Clinton must assess whether she is yet prepared to give up her presidential hopes. By accepting the State Department she would profoundly disappoint millions of supporters, many of them women, who remained loyal to her right to the end of her long primary battle with Obama.

“I would tell her not to do it,” said a close Clinton ally. “Never, ever, count the Clintons out. Never assume that they will quietly drift away into the sunset.”