The reigning philosophy in Washington is Smart Power—a subtle combination of brains and the wisdom to use them to get things done. Hillary Clinton embodies Smart Power. So do Michelle Obama and David Gregory. Who else makes the grade?
At her Senate confirmation hearing in January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton uttered a phrase that was pitch-perfect for the Obama administration: “smart power.” This, said Clinton, represented the seamless merging of raw muscle with the more subtle art of persuasion– the twinning of the powers to coerce and convince, wielded together with deftness and savvy. Smart Power quickly became an Obama-era catchphrase, not only at home but around the world (“ Le "smart power", nouvelle matrice de la diplomatie américaine” “ A Hora do "smart power"” “ Der deutsche Außenminister reist wieder gerne nach Amerika” “ Хиллари Клинтон при Обаме превращается в Штайнмайера”) and portended a new foreign-policy era. Neither too hard nor too soft, Smart Power seemed just right—representing a sharp break from (and fairly clear dig at) the Bush administration, invoking Change and Hope and A New Way Forward, as opposed to Shock and Awe and Putting Food on Your Family.
Could anyone embody Smart Power more than Hillary Clinton? By all rights, she should have been toast after this election—yet there she was, being confirmed as secretary of State, a critical ally of the president. Clinton learned over the primary process just how far the brute force of Team Clinton would—and wouldn’t—take her, so instead she redefined the kind of power she held by becoming one of Obama’s best soldiers. From a candidate whose campaign began rooted in the loyalties and legacies of the past, Clinton retrenched and consolidated what she had built in the present—with a canny eye on the new realities of the future.
More broadly, Smart Power applies across the board to the new realities of 2009. To put it bluntly, the old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore—for anything. Every reality from a year ago seems hopelessly out of date—a thriving auto industry, actually owning a home, wanting to date an investment banker. Thriving and surviving in this brave and weird new world takes more than just the raw brute power of, say, money—Lehman Brothers learned how quickly that can go—or feeling smug over a print byline (especially if the article can’t be found online). How can Smart Power apply to those of us who don’t have to negotiate trade treaties or appease mad dictators? The Daily Beast asked Suzanne Nossel, the former Clinton-era deputy to UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who coined the phrase in a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs. Nossel, now the chief operating officer at Human Rights Watch, could see how the concept might apply beyond the foreign-policy world, recognizing that applying Smart Power required that special game-changing extra spark. "It's not just about putting smart people in place—the Bush administration had many smart people, which didn't always make for smart policies," she said (cough, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, cough). “We should exercise our power in ways that are sustainable instead of draining." So how does that apply to, say, media companies, or a junior senator? Simple—by being practical instead of ideological; by looking ahead and planning accordingly; by convincing others to support you. All of these things make for Smart Power, says Nossel: “Who uses tools hard and soft, who combines them in a supple way, who does it in a way that proves sustainable, who mobilizes others behind their ideas, who has a longer view."
In this Age of Obama, who does that describe? (Besides the bald eagle on the Presidential Seal, who holds 13 arrows in one claw and an olive branch in the other.) Here are some top picks for those who speak softly and carry a big stick—and an even bigger brain:
Claire McCaskill—The junior senator from Missouri is not to be messed with—that much was made clear last month when she ripped Wall Street executives as being “ a bunch of idiots” and proposed from the Senate floor that any executive taking government aid should have their salary capped to that of the president. It was a brilliant rollout—practicality plus shame plus the highest office in the land—and two weeks later, it was done—a big win for a freshman senator whose very election came down to a nailbiter back in 2006. Now she’s the president’s trusty go-to surrogate (there she is on Meet the Press!), her cherubic face calm and confident as she explains just how it’s gonna be. Oh, and she’s also on Twitter, telling you—and Paul Krugman!—how it’s gonna be there, too. She’s like that teacher you love but you do not cross.
Michelle Obama—If you think the first lady doesn’t know how to use her power, just ask Ty Inc.—the Beanie Baby-manufacturing toy company which quickly recalled its Sasha and Malia-inspired dolls after a disapproving quote from their mother. Michy O. will not be bullied—not by black designers sulking about her fashion choices, not by designers hoping to get her out for Fashion Week—and we know she’ll have no problem telling Barack exactly what she thinks at any given moment. That doesn’t make her smile off the cover of Vogue any less beatific—it just reminds you that there’s a lot more to her than that.
David Gregory—Yes, yes, we all know that Chuck Todd is the brainy kid that could from NBC, going from National Journal blogger to NBC political director to fan-fave TV star to White House correspondent in a meteoric rise. He’s smart, sure—but when it comes to power, it’s David Gregory who has consolidated his quietly but decisively in the post-election era. Though the drawn-out decision to award him Meet the Press was hardly a decisive endorsement, since then it’s been hard to imagine it going to anyone else as he’s slowly but subtly made the broadcast his own, introducing new blood into the lineup and reaching out across new platforms (he’s recently embraced Twitter—months after George Stephanopoulous quietly signed up, but Gregory’s the one on Politico’s D.C. “Power Twitter” list). Meanwhile, he’s not getting cocky—he’s still getting up extra early for Today and Morning Joe, while putting in an appearance on Nightly and wherever else he may be needed. This isn’t the milquetoast from Road to the White House, in a crappy timeslot with no real purpose—this guy is a guy bent on taking great leaps forward, and not just because he has giant legs.
Google—It’s almost a cliché to put Google on any power list. But on this list, how could you not? This is a company that seems to intuitively get the pairing of hard power with soft just as well as, well, hardware with soft. Dominant, innovative, and forward-looking, they’ve parlayed their rainbows-and-sunshine “Don’t Be Evil” rep into a hard candy shell that keeps the backlash at bay as they go from strength to strength. But don’t be fooled: They will elbow you out of the way for their own ends just as soon as do business in China. But oh, that Cafeteria. Has there ever been soft power more compelling than that?
Susan Rice—President Obama’s new ambassador to the United Nations does not have a giant, bushy moustache nor has she advocated knocking off ten stories from her new workplace. But don’t let that fool you into thinking she’s meek—she was once described as “authoritarian, brash, and unwilling to consider opinions that differ from her own.” Obama has no problem appointing blunt instruments to whip the troops into shape—see Emanuel, Rahm—but since those words were written a decade ago, Rice has become a skilled diplomat, schooled in finding the way from what needs to be done to how to actually get there. She’s forceful, connected, and was an able, sharp surrogate during the campaign, proving that she knew how to throw a well-placed elbow in a five-minute segment while still somehow leaving the impression of someone cool and poised. We already know that she’s smart, thanks to Stanford and a Rhodes scholarship—using the big stick doesn’t seem like it will be a problem, either.
Rick Sanchez—Rick Sanchez is not the most popular CNN anchor, nor is he the handsomest, the smartest, nor is he the one who’s broken the most news or with the most connections. But he is indisputably the one with the most energy—and for the past few months, he’s turned that energy on Twitter like an Energizer Bunny on steroids. Suddenly, his 3 p.m. show became newsworthy for a reason apart from the actual news—and he started to rack up the followers. Now he’s got 56,207 of them—a number that wouldn’t move the Nielsen needle much, but is beating Sean Hannity’s 2,848 (and I didn’t see Hannity mixing it up with MC Hammer at the Shorty Awards last week, either). He is the first TV newsman to become famous because of another platform entirely. If that’s not savvily using all the tools at your disposal, I don’t know what is.
Katie Couric—She’s in third place, literally millions of viewers behind her two competitors. Let’s just get that out of the way. Right, done. But remember what Nossel said about using different tools in a supple way, and taking the long view—like Rick Sanchez above, this is just what Katie Couric is doing. Can’t beat ‘em at 6:30? Fine, let’s try it at 8 p.m. Grammy Awards coming up? Why not pair that up with a special? Couric’s willingness to mix it up a bit—as she did during the campaign on the web—has proven a smart way to engage new viewers and drum up new buzz. Oh, and looky there, she’s closing the gap. Smart is knowing how to build power everywhere—not just in one place.
Tina Fey—Tina Fey started out as the smartest girl in the room—and the funniest. She’s always wielded Smart Power, but this past year she’s proved herself to be the total multimedia package, equal parts brain and babe: 30 Rock racks up hardware every time there’s an award show, Baby Mama pulled in more than $60 million at the box office, and her devastating Sarah Palin impersonation helped her land a $5 million book deal. (Plus, did anyone notice how close her seat was to the front of the Kodak Theater at the Oscars? No better sign of Hollywood power than that.)
Salma Hayek—Thanks in part to Fey, Salma Hayek is also having a great year, with hilarious guest spots on 30 Rock, the continued success of Ugly Betty (which she produces)—and her recent marriage to French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault, who just happens to be the head of the fashion group PPR, which includes Gucci and Balenciaga. (How smart is that?) Oh, and just last week she played wet nurse to a hungry African baby—just because she could.
Craig Newmark— For the past few years, Craig Newmark has been walking around with the biggest of sticks—and completely refusing to use it. In the hands of a more aggressive, mercenary type, Newmark’s Craigslist would have targeted old media and driven it into the ground—instead, Craigslist stubbornly refused to cash in. Newmark has used his rocketing stature to do good in a very visible way, sitting on numerous nonprofit and philanthropic boards, stumping on behalf of his good friend Barack Obama, promoting causes he believes in and just being a tireless do-gooder all around. That he could crush you if he wanted to is only part of his charm.
The New York Times Online/The Atlantic Online/Politico: To say that the past few months have been tough for media is an understatement. The mightiest of big media companies are either going under or in danger of doing so—the Tribune Company teetering on the edge; Detroit papers going to three days a week; venerable Newsweek dropping the “news” part, just to stay afloat. But some media companies have been diversifying into the new even while the old is gasping in a death rattle—the New York Times, whose online strategy has been all about aggressive innovation; The Atlantic, whose online voices and web-based efforts have been keeping this 150-year-old mainstay of long-form articles at the cutting edge of what’s happening online; and Politico, which has established a hard-charging brand of reporters who will leap off a bus with their laptop just to stay ahead of the curve. Two of these three brands have established, entrenched media power behind them—but they’re fighting just as hard as the upstart third to stay relevant now, when it matters. Power isn’t too smart if you’re not doing that.
Rachel Sklar is the former Media Editor for the Huffington Post and the author of A Stroke of Luck: Life, Crisis and Rebirth of a Stroke Survivor. She is currently working on Jew-ish , a humorous book about cultural identity. In the meantime, she works with media consulting firm Abrams Research, recently launched online micro-giving site Charitini, and Twitters up a storm. Follow her here.