On June 3, after losing the Democratic presidential primaries to Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton gave what was supposed to be, but wasn't, her concession speech, in which she coquettishly asked:
"What does Hillary want?"
Yesterday, president-elect Barack Obama nominated Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State in his administration. Yet the same question — what does Hillary want? — still lingers.
There is little doubt that Hillary hasn't given up her desire to become president, but the path to the presidency has gotten more complicated. She could serve as Senator for as long as she wants — certainly until 2016, the year Clinton can realistically run again. However, her continued presence in the U.S. Senate – while adding up to an often controversial voting record – may turn from an asset to a liability.
The 2008 presidential election was unusual in the sense that both major candidates happened to be Senators (and the one with a shorter record won). This may not repeat in 2016, as a cohort of young, ambitious, Republican governors — Sarah Palin of Alaska, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota – have already begun flexing their political muscles. (And let's not discount the old guard of the "formers": Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.)
Clinton must stop, once and for all, talk about her lack of executive experience. To this end, she could potentially run, in 2010, for governor of New York, but this would be considered a "step down", giving her stature. The position of Secretary of State gives her exactly what she now needs: executive experience, permanent visibility, and a solid addition to her national security credentials.
In the past two administrations, each of the four Secretaries of State (Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice) had served only one four-year term. Should the Obama administration follow the same pattern, Clinton's tenure will be up in January 2013. A passionate supporter of conspiracy theories could then argue that a deal has been struck between Clinton and Obama: if Hillary acts as a "team player" (and Bill behaves), in the 2012 election, Hillary will replace Joe Biden as the vice-presidential candidate. Should the Obama-Clinton ticket win, Hillary will return to domestic issues and use her vice-presidency as a springboard to launch her presidential campaign in 2016.
First and foremost, Obama is a "domestic" president, and his decision to appoint Clinton was primarily "domestic" — aimed at healing the unity of the Democratic party fractured by contentious primaries. Besides, during the presidential campaign, Obama has adopted a left-of-center position on a number of important national security issues, such as the Iraq war and Iran. As Secretary of State, Clinton, who is much more hawkish than Obama on both issues, will help him move back to the center without alienating the Democratic party base.
As far as relations with Russia are concerned, much will depend on the first "official" meeting between Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Hopefully, the summit will pave way to negotiations on renewing the START-I treaty which expires on December 5, 2009. In this regard, teaming up Clinton with Robert Gates, whom Obama has persuaded to stay on the job as Secretary of Defense, may be very productive. Gates, a Russia-expert, has recent practical experience working with Moscow on security issues. Clinton, a current member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, will be instrumental in navigating the future agreement through the Senate.
It remains to be seen who'll be handling Russia in the State Department and the National Security Council. Until then, it's too early to say whether the rest of the troubled relations will be blessed by a "change."