In choosing Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, Barack Obama is taking his biggest gamble yet. From day one, the press will be searching for signs of acrimony or insubordination. Liberals will search for signs that Hillary and her aides are pushing foreign policy to the right. Everyone will search for signs that Bill is running amok.
Other than Obama himself, she’ll be the most famous person in every room she’s in.
As I wrote on The Daily Beast last month, I don't know why Hillary would want such a thankless job. But Obama is right to offer it to her. Here are three reasons why.
1) Hillary’s Experienced. She may not be the foreign policy wonk like Richard Holbrooke or James Steinberg, but all those years as First Lady—many of them on the road—have given her considerable exposure to foreign leaders. That’s important because Obama himself won’t be able to devote as much attention to foreign policy as everyone assumed six months ago. Until the economy recovers (and who knows when that will be), he’s going to be primarily a domestic policy president. That means he needs foreign policy advisors who can make tough decisions without a lot of Oval Office hand-holding. Hillary fits the bill.
2) She’s No Pushover. Secretary of state is a hard job. In the last half-century, secretaries of state have often been outmaneuvered by national security advisors, who have greater proximity to the boss, and don’t have a big, slow bureaucracy to manage. Now that vice presidents have started to wield real power, life atop Foggy Bottom has gotten harder still. Hillary will have her hands full going up against James Jones, Robert Gates and Joseph Biden, but she’s got a far better chance than, say, John Kerry or Bill Richardson, for two reasons. First, she’s got star power: Other than Obama himself, she’ll be the most famous person in every room she’s in. Second, she has a network of loyalists, inside and outside government, who know how the game is played. She—and they—won’t be easy to roll.
3) She has a domestic base. When it comes to foreign policy, Obama seems determined to do some pretty controversial things: Step up withdrawals from Iraq, launch a diplomatic push with Iran, perhaps shift resources from America’s military to the diplomatic corps. All these things will require a secretary of state who knows how to sell policies in Peoria, and on Capitol Hill. That’s one of Hillary’s big advantages. She thinks like a politician, not a career diplomat, which is crucial since Obama’s Middle East policies will likely require a kind of political campaign at home, so the right can’t successfully paint him as soft on America’s foes.
Hillary is a handful, but that’s exactly what the State Department—and America—needs. Obama’s taking a gamble, but it just might pay off.
RELATED: Mark McKinnon on Why Republicans Are Gushing About Obama.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.