Will Obama and Clinton work as a team?

They’ve had differences, but Obama is expected to name her as secretary of State.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
Expected pick: As secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton would implement Obama’s foreign policy.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is likely to be watched by foreign leaders and domestic observers alike for signs of adhering to – or straying from – the daylight rule.

No, not the time-honored rule of school dances, where chaperones want to see daylight between dancing partners. Rather, it’s the diplomatic rule that says there should be no daylight between the president and his secretary of State.

President-elect Obama was expected to announce Monday that Senator Clinton – his top rival in the Democratic primaries – was his choice for secretary of State. It presages a period of intense scrutiny for the two strong leaders’ relationship.

“People, and it goes for both friends and foes, are always questioning, ‘Is there any light between the two?’ ” says George Shultz, who was secretary of State to President Reagan. “People used to ask me, ‘What’s your foreign policy?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t have one: The president has one. My job is to formulate that foreign policy and help him carry it out.’ ”

Few foreign-policy experts and policy­makers question Clinton’s fitness for the job. They point to the stamina and intellectual capacity she demonstrated over a grueling presidential campaign, plus her years of experience dealing with foreign leaders and addressing international issues as first lady.

But where question marks do arise is over how Mr. Obama and Clinton will overcome the foreign-policy differences that arose over the course of a long, heated primary campaign. Those differences – sometimes sharp – ranged from the decision to go to war in Iraq to the wisdom of speaking to America’s enemies without preconditions.

Clinton’s doubts about Obama’s preparedness to take on the job of commander in chief were captured in the so-called 3 a.m. ad, in which a grave male voice asked who Americans wanted to answer the White House telephone while their children and the nation slept.

Differences magnified by rhetoric?

Yet as stark as those differences may have been portrayed by both camps during the primaries, they were never really that pronounced, many foreign-policy experts say.
“I do think the differences between them on some of these foreign-policy issues were magnified by the heat of campaign rhetoric,” says George Herring, a historian and professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky. “I don’t buy into the whole idea that Obama is, more than anything else, viewing Clinton as a rival.”

Perhaps more important for Obama was how Clinton emerged in the general campaign as one of Obama’s more tireless advocates.

She proved particularly effective at articulating her former competitor’s foreign-policy goals and his vision of America’s role in the world, and her work caught the candidate’s eye, Obama advisers say. That led to Obama’s growing sense of wanting that strength on his team.

Some students of US foreign policy add that Clinton is intelligent enough to know that as secretary of State, she will be implementing the president’s foreign policy.

“Some people are saying this is unprecedented, that no personality as strong or opinionated as Hillary Clinton has taken this job. But what about Henry Kissinger or James Baker?” says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund in Washington and a foreign-policy specialist. “Those are two recent examples of very strong secretaries, but each was in sync with and implemented the policies of the president, and surely Hillary understands that.”

A successful president-secretary relationship is not necessarily one where no differences exist, but where any differences are aired in frequent meetings – and behind closed doors, says Mr. Shultz, now at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif. “You talk them through,” Shultz says of any differences. “I had private meetings twice a week with President Reagan, so that in time I had a very good idea of how he approached issues.”

A sign that Clinton understands this dynamic came from leaked information that she demanded – and was assured she would have – direct access to the president.

That’s important because the president and secretary of State’s ability to work together can determine a successful foreign policy, says Professor Herring, who recently published “From Colony to Superpower,” an expansive study of US foreign relations since the Revolution.

“Nixon and Kissinger had a close but very weird relationship, suspicious of each other and each demeaning the other when he wasn’t around. But they respected each other’s views and capabilities, and they worked together,” he says.

Rice, the current secretary of State

The case of Condoleezza Rice exemplifies both how a secretary of State may subjugate her own views to those of the president and how she may end up coaxing the president down a new direction.

Secretary Rice was known as a foreign-policy realist before entering the George W. Bush White House (as national security adviser). But she adopted many of the president’s more idealistic and neoconservative positions, particularly after 9/11. On the other hand, Rice is credited with bringing Mr. Bush back to a more pragmatic and traditional foreign policy – for example, repairing ties to America’s allies after the Iraq invasion. “The term is ending with a foreign policy that looks a lot more like Condoleezza Rice’s original vision,” Mr. Cirincione says.

Indeed, some foreign-policy experts wonder if Clinton – and, more broadly, the national-security team Obama is assembling – won’t influence the new president in a direction that is not the one he suggested during the campaign.

“In the tension between careful and quick, between incremental and transformational in foreign policy, the careful and incremental seems to have won out,” says Cirincione.

After a long campaign and a shared Senate experience with Clinton, Obama knows he’s getting a strong personality with defined foreign-policy views in Hillary Clinton, observers say.

“Clinton could be very effective, but it does have to be clear that she and the president are on the same wavelength,” Shultz says. “It can’t be that she’s thinking one thing and he another – that won’t work.”

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