Friday, November 14, 2008

Secretary of State Clinton?

NBC reports that the Obama team is considering the appointment of erstwhile rival Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, traditionally the premier cabinet post, although Treasury and Defense may be as or more important next year because of the economic mess and two wars.
Still, State is not chopped liver!

Don't get me wrong, Hillary is great. I voted for her in the New York primary. But try to remember the last time that State was held by a prominent politician, much less one who sought the Presidency and ran against the guy who won. It doesn't happen, Presidents are not keen on worrying whether his senior foreign policy maker is really on the same team and not working to polish her own image, the better to run for President again. Cabinet secretaries should be outstanding. They also should be people the President can replace without a fierce political backlash from the Cabinet member's political supporters.

Let's face it; Hillary would not be able to help herself. If Obama wants to be able to sleep nights, he'd be well advised to look elsewhere.

UPDATE 11/14/08 -- NBC's Andrea Mitchell and others say the Clinton appointment is a real possibility. On MSNBC, the prospect is more or less being celebrated as Obama's take on Lincoln's "team of rivals" cabinet, memorialized in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book of that name. It certainly would be a team of rivals.

In Lincoln's day, that made sense: first, because the Cabinet was a meaningful entity, the place for decision-making in a nation not yet comfortable with outsized Presidential power; and second, because the nation was literally breaking up and only the new Republican Party was unreservedly committed to preserving the union. Holding together the many political strands of the new party was crucial if Lincoln was to have any chance at all.

Today, there is no such thing as Cabinet government. Everyone expects the President to run things, and while the crises we face are challenging, the nation is not on the verge of being destroyed. That means President Obama will be calling the shots, and Cabinet secretaries will often meet with frustration as they labor to support him and fend off encroachments from other grandees. A politician who is a national figure and barely lost the nomination that Obama won will be tempted constantly to push her own agenda. Hillary's great, and the politics of appointing his principal rival (a woman at that) will make Obama look good for a while. Down the road, though, it augurs ill for an effective administration.

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