Could Secretary of State Clinton disagree with President Obama without undermining him?

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Nov. 21 2008 4:58 PM

The Underminer?

Could Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama disagree without creating a Washington melodrama?

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

The New York Times reports that Hillary Clinton has said yes. She will be President Barack Obama's secretary of state. The Clinton selection will occasion another 10 rounds of discussion about the wisdom of no-drama Obama bringing all the Clinton troubles into his house. Will Hillary Clinton undermine him to keep her political options open? What about Bill's flair for controversy? And how's that first meeting going to go between Hillary Clinton and Obama's White House Counsel Greg Craig, who claimed during the campaign that Clinton exaggerated her foreign-policy experience?

By picking Clinton, Obama may be making some kind of special political play, removing one of his rivals to protect himself from political harm, but I think he's more serious than that. There's been no evidence over the last two years that he engages in this kind of overly clever bank shot. It's more likely he's picked Clinton because she's smart and because he wants to surround himself with people who will challenge him.

During the presidential campaign, he regularly attacked President Bush for surrounding himself with people who only told him what he wanted to hear. He promised that he wouldn't do that. Every president says he's going to foster this spirit of candor (George W. Bush often said it), and we'll see if Obama really wants the kind of free-flowing dialogue he claims to. But the Clinton pick suggests that at least Obama is trying to make good on the promise. Obama is, in a way, courting drama.

What Obama wants from Clinton is the candor that can only be delivered by someone of her stature. It's what he said he wanted from Joe Biden, too. The problem for Clinton is that when the time comes for her to deliver her opinions to Obama directly and candidly and to fight for those opinions, it's going to look to those on the outside as if she's undermining her boss. The heated conversations might stay in the Oval Office, but it's hard to keep secrets in Washington, as Obama is learning. When a Cabinet secretary really believes in something, she tends to translate that passion to her staffers, who often talk to the press.

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As long as Obama knows that Clinton is loyal, it may not matter how the chattering classes interpret any disagreement between them. Then again, it may. Secretary of state is an unusual position. Diplomats in Washington and foreign capitals believe a secretary of State based on how much weight they think the secretary carries with the president. If Clinton is viewed as operating on her own—even when she's being the kind of candid diplomat Obama wants her to be—it might send confusing signals.

The perception of conflict may, of course, be avoided if Clinton and Obama see things the same way for the duration of his presidency. Though this appointment may seem like the fulfillment of Obama's promise to name a team of rivals, as President Lincoln did, Clinton was merely a political rival, not an ideological one. During the campaign her views—particularly on foreign policy—were nearly identical to Obama's. Yes, they had that spat about how and when to meet with rogue leaders, but by the time they had both tweaked their positions, they were pretty similar. Maybe she'll completely agree all the time. But if she does, she probably won't be doing her job.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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