Clinton Toils in the Shadows

By Ben Smith
|  Tuesday, Jun 23, 2009  |  Updated 6:00 AM CDT
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Team Obama

AP

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is rarely in the spotlight.

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Back last fall, when Barack Obama sprang his surprise about naming former rival Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, many people assumed she would be the Cabinet's brightest star — a celebrity at large on the world stage, the face of American foreign policy while the president was consumed back home by domestic issues and a troubled economy.

Few commentators predicted the reality: an era of grindstone leadership at the State Department.

But that's exactly what Clinton has fashioned at Foggy Bottom. She has become a disciplined loyalist who jostles for White House influence just like any Cabinet secretary and who has advanced her cause by striking some key internal alliances.

Most surprisingly, she has about as low a news-making profile as is possible for someone who is arguably the most famous woman on the planet. When she slipped and broke her elbow last week, it was the most press coverage she had gotten in months. A Nexis database search showed she had fewer mentions last month than any time since she launched her presidential bid in January 2007.

It is an arrangement that, by all appearances, seems to suit Clinton and the Obama White House just fine, even as it has contributed to increasing chatter in foreign policy circles about her clout.

By some lights, no one should be surprised by the former presidential candidate's latest reinvention. It is an encore performance — a revival of the same strategy Clinton used when arriving to a chamber of skeptical colleagues after being elected to the Senate in 2000. Then she brushed aside national publicity and immersed herself on such issues as regional dairy compacts while waiting years for the right moment to re-emerge.

But the Cabinet represents a different challenge than the Senate. Like that of all her colleagues in the administration, her power is, in the end, derivative — depending on her relationship and access to Obama himself.

Some close observers think she has not done enough to preserve her department's influence, in part because several key issues-the Mideast peace process, Iran and Afghanistan — are steered by high-level envoys who work directly with the White House, albeit with coordination by State.

"You've got the empire of envoys that she acquiesced in, which sent into motion these little fiefdoms," said Aaron David Miller, a former longtime Middle East negotiator. "The general proposition is that in diplomacy and strategy, all power seems to be flowing away from the State Department."

Both the State Department and the White House are eager to rebut this perception before it takes deep root in either elite foreign policy circles or the news media.

In the reporting for this article, an array of senior officials got on the line — including many who do not ordinarily give interviews or do so on background rules — for on-the-record singing of her praises.

"Her star power has been an enormously effective tool for us," Tom Donilon, the deputy national security adviser with a central role in running foreign policy day to day, told POLITICO, describing the attention she commands abroad and her access to foreign leaders.

"She's a pretty tough customer in private negotiations, as you would imagine, and expects partners to behave like partners and expects people to do what they say they're going to do."

Donilon and other top officials emphasized how well she has fit in among the "alpha males" — as she put it to one of them, Afghanistan and Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke — who compose the rest of the foreign policy team. A spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Geoff Morrell, noted that those two have emerged as particular allies.

"In the eight administrations Secretary Gates has worked in, more often than not the secretary of defense and secretary of state were not on speaking terms. By contrast, he and Secretary Clinton get along as if they were old friends," he said, adding that Gates sees Clinton as someone who is "serious, hard-working and cares deeply about national security issues."

 

Clinton's strategy for navigating Obama's councils of power is a reflection of temperament. Hillary Clinton the celebrity has always been balanced by -- and, in the end, usually subordinate to -- Clinton the grind, the woman with the self-described "responsibility gene." Bill Clinton was the politician as jazz improvisationalist; she was the linear thinker who believed that self-discipline and applied intelligence is the answer to most challenges.

In this case, the challenge is one that nearly all Cabinet officers face in the modern presidency. It is that a grand title -- and in Clinton's case, a fancy blue-and-white Air Force plane at her disposal -- does not automatically translate to policy influence. Such outsize personalities as Alexander Haig and Colin Powell have found themselves at State essentially playing with a toy phone.

Clinton's inner circle at State also reflects personal preference. She chose not to bring any foreign policy experts into her personal staff on the State Department's seventh floor. Her top aide is lawyer Cheryl Mills, a former deputy White House counsel and impeachment warrior with a reputation for fierce intelligence and loyalty, but no major foreign policy experience, who holds the dual titles of counselor and chief of staff.

Some Clinton allies outside government worry this preference for loyalists over foreign policy credentials leaves her outgunned against the administration's alpha males.

"She's decided to put people around her who know nothing about foreign policy," complained a former senior Clinton aide.

But Clinton's staff choices are hardly unprecedented. Successful secretaries like James Baker brought in political inner circles. And Clinton has other close allies in the building who are experts, from the director of policy and planning staff, Anne Marie Slaughter, to Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs, Andrew Shapiro.

Still, there's no doubt that in this administration -- as in all modern presidencies -- the center of policy and personnel gravity remains at the White House. Three Democrats said Mills had clashed unsuccessfully with NSC senior aide Denis McDonough -- "They went mano a mano," said one -- over appointing Clinton loyalists to ambassadorships.

McDonough said the account was "not accurate."

"One of the many blessings of this job has been working with and getting to know Cheryl," he said.

It may be too early to answer the largest questions of Clinton's role: In particular, what is her personal stake in a foreign policy whose face is unquestionably that of Barack Obama?

Some predecessors have been publicly aligned with clear policy positions. Madeleine Albright, for instance, had to throw elbows to ensure access in Bill Clinton's White House but was helped by being known publicly as a prominent advocate for the use of force to halt ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

Hillary Clinton does not yet have that kind of issue profile, and does not seem eager to gain one. During the solitary Sunday television interview she has given as secretary, ABC's George Stephanopoulos pressed her to describe "What is your role, exactly?" She answered vaguely about being "chief diplomat" and eventually answered, "The president asked me to lead the effort on food security."

One paradox is that Clinton's bruised image seems to have recovered as her star power diminished. A CNN poll in late March found her job approval rating at 71 percent, even higher than Obama's.

"She understands better than anyone else that the president sucks up all the oxygen," said Maria Echeveste, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a longtime supporter who spoke to Clinton before her March trip to Mexico, and who said she's impressed with Clinton's handling of the job. "It gives her an opportunity to really contribute to this country in a defined way, in a really important arena," she said.

Some of the most delicate questions for Clinton and Obama aides are about the regional envoys.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told POLITICO one of her key roles would be "to be primarily responsible for our big power relationships" with countries like China and Russia.

But the unprecedented reliance on high-profile envoys -- technically joint appointments of the State Department and the White House -- will perhaps be the key to her success or failure.

"The envoys will be the primary metric through which you will judge her legacy," said Crowley.

 

The envoys operate with considerable independence and can, for instance, be reached by the press without going through the State Department press office.

And even skeptical observers said Clinton appears to have won sufficient control over the envoys after a precarious start.

Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican who serves on the House subcommittee that oversees the State Department and describes himself as a Clinton "fan" for her role in pushing for sending more troops to Afghanistan, said Clinton has won a central role after a precarious start.

"Between her consideration and her final confirmation she had lost some authority and power as all of these envoys were appointed," he said. "Once she did get confirmed, though, what we have seen is a steady increase in her authority and control as we have seen envoys seeming to now work with her."

Holbrooke, who has the Afghanistan-Pakistan account, and George Mitchell, in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, both told POLITICO they were brought into the administration by Clinton and report first to her and that they typically meet with the president only in Clinton's presence.

Returning from trips to the Middle East, Mitchell said, "I immediately go to the State Department and I meet and report to the secretary -- then together we meet and report to the president."

Leaders in the region, he said, view her as "pre-eminent."

"I've never been alone with the president since I took this job -- I always work through her," said Holbrooke, a veteran of the State Department dating back to the Vietnam era.

"There's a real difference between subcontracting foreign to people -- which can cannibalize you -- and having strong people who you direct," he said, saying Clinton had extended State's reach by bringing in high-profile veterans like himself, Mitchell, and former Office of Management and Budget director Jack Lew. "A diminished department is a department in which people in it are minor figures."

Clinton is also afforded a level of day-to-day deference that underscores her stature. One White House official recalled overhearing Holbrooke ask Clinton's permission to leave the West Wing.

"Madam Secretary, would you mind if I adjourned to have dinner with my wife?" he asked, winning an, "Of course, Richard."

The deputy secretary of state, Jim Steinberg, described Clinton's role with the envoys as "the closer."

"The envoys tee it up for her," he said in an interview. "It's an extremely powerful way to use someone with her stature."

The envoys aren't the only powerful staffers. Steinberg, though he attends Clinton's senior staff meetings and serves under her in the bureaucracy, is a White House choice.

He and Donilon, close friends for 20 years from Democratic politics and high-level Clinton administration service, have emerged as the central channel in the day-to-day conduct of foreign policy, alongside two other senior National Security Council officials, Mark Lippert and McDonough.

In any event, plum posts have gone exclusively to Obama donors. One Clinton ally and a former top aide to Madeleine Albright, Wendy Sherman, was among those mentioned for ambassador to China, a foreign policy expert said; the job went instead to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the White House choice.

"In the end of the day, it is the decision that the White House makes," said Steinberg. "In some cases, they're not people who she or I knew well -- like [Ambassador to Japan John Roos], but they're very qualified."

In other cases, Clinton has backed the bureaucracy's efforts to put foreign service officers, rather than Obama donors, in place. A former Clinton administration ambassador to Chile, Gabriel Guerra-Mondragon, said the State Department had successfully resisted White House pressure to appoint a donor ambassador to Brazil, though other Hispanic Clinton backers are said to have been disappointed at having been shut out of Latin American ambassadorships.

With the key personnel choices largely made at the White House, Clinton has shown flickers of a policy agenda. During transition, officials confirmed, she and Gates successfully made the case for an Afghan troop surge, over Vice President Joe Biden's objections. A State Department source confirmed a report that Clinton had advocated a line on Iran that was firmer than Obama's early, cautious stance. A White House official said, by contrast, that Clinton's personal staff had assured the White House there was no daylight between the two sides.

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