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27 November 2008

The team of rivals thing

For Barack Obama, forgiveness has few bounds if it means he can surround himself with the best peopl

By Alec MacGillis

So unapologetically giddy is Washington about Barack Obama’s likely selection of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state – with all the entertaining musings about gender and generational power dynamics and about Bill’s role that this would provide – that it is easy to overlook how remarkable this turnabout is.

There have been many knowing allusions to Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet of former antagonists. But the happy historical reference glosses over the ill-feeling of the 2008 primaries. Think of Hillary’s mockery of Obama’s rhetoric (“Now I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect,'” she once riffed, voice viscous with scorn) or of her use of the very culture-war tropes that John McCain would adopt against Obama – “links” with a former radical, her appeal to “hard-working Americans, white Americans”.

“I don’t want to hear about the Clintons any more. Why go there? It’s like Obama has become borderline obsessed”

It is true that one difference between the two has been overstated: Obama’s willingness to meet “without preconditions” with enemy leaders. Clinton hammered this as “irresponsible and frankly naive”, but it boiled down to a semantic dispute. Still, the campaign exposed a genuine difference in world-views. Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War was couched in a broader argument that Democrats could be tough and smart about national security without always looking over their shoulder at the Republicans, as many liberals felt Clinton had done in voting to authorise force in Iraq. That, as Obama often put it, “I don’t want to just end the war, I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place” – an argument further fuelled by Clinton’s vote to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist force. And there were nasty disputes about experience – Clinton ridiculed Obama’s claims to insight from living abroad and said he lacked readiness for the “3am phone call”, while Obama belittled first-lady teas and said she had exaggerated her role in Northern Ireland and Bosnia.

Now, Clinton is poised to carry out the foreign policy agenda that Obama’s campaign defined by its break from the strictures that bound her thinking. Cynics see a Machiavellian move – to remove Clinton from the Senate, where she could undermine him, to a slot where she (and Bill) must work with or for him. Others wonder whether Obama now sees less of a policy gap with Clinton. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor and leading conservative critic of the Iraq War, says that Obama has moved towards Clinton’s more conventional outlook with his call for sending more troops to Afghanistan.

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“The guy who once asked fundamental questions about how we got into Iraq would ask searching questions about how to get out of Afghanistan, and would not see sending reinforcements into Afghanistan as an approximation of a change in policies,” Bacevich told me. “I wonder if . . . the guy who early on was willing to make bold moves that break the mould by the election had come to recognise the . . . constraints within which an American president operates.”

Or Obama may simply see Clinton as the best person for the job. Her relative hawkishness on Iran and Israel could lend political cover to a push for Middle East peace. For all her ambition, Clinton is a team player and dutiful overachiever who applies herself fully to any task given her. And she would carry a higher profile abroad than Obama’s other choices. The president-elect may be demonstrating, in the most striking way possible, his preference for people of stature, irrespective of past disagreements. This was on display again when he announced the appointment as a top economics adviser of Larry Summers, the abrasive and intellectually impressive former treasury secretary, and of Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary. Geithner, like Obama, is 47, spent part of his childhood in Asia, and is possessed of a calm temperament. (He worked under Summers at the treasury and has since run the New York Federal Reserve, where he has been at the centre of fitful rescue efforts.) Both men are linked to Robert Rubin, the former treasury secretary and leading advocate for the deregulation that many, including Obama, blame for the financial collapse.

But for Obama, it appears, forgiveness has few bounds when it comes to smart and formidable people he believes can play a role for him – and who, in the case of Summers and Geithner, are now sounding all the right left-of-centre notes. This magnanimity is disconcerting to some liberals, who were also taken aback by his clemency toward Joe Lieberman, the Democratic senator who vigorously campaigned, as a friend, for McCain.

One ardent Obama supporter, the former New Hampshire legislator Carol Moore, suspects Clinton might fare well as secretary of state but still has misgivings. “I feel less worried about it than I feel irritated about it,” she told me. “I don’t want to hear about the Clintons any more. I can’t get over, ‘Why the hell would he even want to do that? Why go there?'” She concluded: “It’s like he’s become borderline obsessed with this ‘team of rivals’ thing.”

Alec MacGillis is a staff writer for the Washington Post