It’s time for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burqa.
Consider the president’s Moscow trip a week ago. In a cozy scene at Vladimir Putin’s dacha, the boys enjoyed traditional Russian tea and breakfast on a terrace. Sitting on Putin’s right was the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Where was Lavrov’s counterpart? She was back home, left there with a broken elbow to receive a visit from the ousted Honduran president, José Manuel Zelaya.
It becomes clearer by the day how cleverly Obama checkmated both Clintons by putting Hillary in the topmost Cabinet job.
Same thing last month, when the president stopped off to see King Abdullah en route to his oratorical home run in Cairo: no Hillary. Nor was there any sign of Middle East envoy George Mitchell or anyone else from the State Department on the Saudi leg of the trip, even though its main mission was to recruit Abdullah into a peace-making partnership with Israel. The king told Obama no, by the way, so it’s fair to ask whether the president could have used a bit more Foggy Bottom prep work. Jim Hoagland noted in Sunday’s Washington Post that the White House’s leak of Obama’s decision to send an ambassador to Syria took Clinton’s State Department by surprise and trumped State’s efforts to squeeze another concession or two out of Damascus first.
Hillary finds herself in a familiar bind with a different twist. If she allows daylight between herself and the president, she becomes the kind of lame duck Colin Powell became once foreign powers realized the ex-general was nowhere near Bush’s inner circle. It becomes clearer by the day how brilliantly Obama checkmated both Clintons by putting Hillary in the topmost Cabinet job. Secretary Clinton can’t be seen to differ from the president without sabotaging her own power. And ex-President Clinton has been uncharacteristically disciplined about not threatening the careful political equilibrium his wife is trying to maintain. Besides, when Hillary had her own deep misgivings about taking the job in the first place, it was Bill who seconded Obama and encouraged her to accept.
The Big Dog’s sacrifice (and, maybe, Hillary’s revenge) is that he no longer can behave like a roving superstar diplomat without a portfolio. He has been curtailed in how freewheeling he can be running his successful Clinton Global Initiative. It was an apt symbol when, in May, with the administration’s approval, he was made U.N. special envoy to Haiti. Obama hasn’t just dethroned the potential queen. He’s turned Bill Clinton into Prince Philip—Port-au-Prince Philip, in fact.
Any discontent over this turn of events, however, is locked in the basement of the Clintons’ house in Chappaqua. Hillary, with her usual iron discipline about the big picture of power, is behaving like a stalwart team player. Before she took the job, she was assured she could pick her own trusted team. Yet she was overruled in appointing her own choice for deputy secretary, Richard Holbrooke. Instead, she was made to take an Obama guy, James Steinberg, who had originally been slated to become national-security adviser. (Hillary took care of Holbrooke, one of diplomacy’s biggest stars, by giving him the most explosive portfolio—Pakistan and Afghanistan.) She lost the ability to dole out major ambassadorships, too. A lot of these prizes are going to reward Obama fundraisers instead of knowledgeable appointees like Harvard’s Joseph Nye, whom she wanted to send to Japan.
Even when there’s legitimate credit to be had, she remains invisible. Contrary to administration spin that Joe Biden played a critical role in the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, the vice president stayed opposed to Obama's strategy. It was Hillary, sources tell me, whom the president relied on throughout the deliberations with principal national-security advisers to support and successfully argue his point of view. The need to paper over the difference between Obama and the vice president meant Hillary’s role went unacknowledged.
The former first lady and New York senator is no stranger to the big game of politics. Obama's presidency is tightly White House driven and she is not the only player on a tight leash. She has always cared more about the substance of work than its status trappings. Besides, the president and she agree on most of the big issues (though she thought he took the neutrality of his statements in the Iran uprising too far too long). There has been much comment that she wasn’t allowed by the president’s message team to go on the Sunday talk shows until six months into her tenure as secretary of State. But I doubt she cares about losing the spotlight at this time in her life when she's not running for something. Unlike Bill, she hates glad-handing and does TV only because she has to. Policy is her meat and drink. On her State Department plane, Hillary is always eager to throw off her well-groomed public look and sit up front with no makeup, wearing sweats and her bookworm glasses, as she crunches her way through a big fat file of foreign-policy memos. She is as formidably well-informed in this job as she was at the Rose law firm in Arkansas, doing all the legal backup work for the guys on a big deal. Or when she played the canny sounding board and strategist for Gov. Bill Clinton in his run for president.
That’s the trouble. You could say that Obama is lucky to have such a great foreign-policy wife. Those who voted for Hillary wonder how long she'll be content with an office wifehood of the Saudi variety.
Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown .