While conservatives and Republicans never like to be the subject of a front-page New York Times story, there are occasional moments when a liberal Democrat doesn't exactly like it either. One such moment was Thursday morning. "For Clinton, '09 Campaign Is for Her Turf" ran the headline.
It's theme couldn't be more clear: Madame Clinton had been outfoxed by the White House in terms of who would be the primary architect of U.S. foreign policy. The Times' description of Clinton's Wednesday speech to the Council on Foreign Relations spelled it out: "[Its] muscular tone and sweeping scope...was also an effort to recapture the limelight after a period in which Mrs. Clinton has nursed both a broken elbow and the perception that the State Department has lost influence to an assertive White House."
Equally problematic for the nation's lead diplomat, the other Times -- the one across the pond -- also chimed in, quoting Tina Brown's declaration that "it's time for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burka."
Clinton must have expected something like this to occur -- though perhaps not so early in her tenure. After all, she fought Obama to the bitter end in the 2008 Democratic primary. He inched her out by a few thousand votes out of millions cast for both of them. His became the historic presidency, while her effort became the almost-but-not-quite runner-up. Nonetheless, Obama approached her and asked her to be the face of his foreign policy. Had she declined, she could have been a major power broker in the Senate.
True, she wouldn't have been a major committee chairman (though a deal could have been carved out to grant her a symbolic post). But, she would have nonetheless still carried considerable clout. She would have still represented one of the most powerful states in the country -- and she could still be said to represent the wishes of some 18 million Democratic voters. She wouldn't necessarily have had to threaten much to get her way in either health-care reform or any number of other bits of legislation.
But, in accepting Obama's State offer, she knew that she was, for all intents and purposes, giving up any claim to future domestic policy or political involvement. She was laying aside any future runs for the presidency (barring extraordinary circumstances). She was becoming part of the Obama team. But as part of that team, she was still Hillary Clinton. She was still one of the most famous women in the world, well-traveled in her own right even before being sworn in. She had something of an international power "base" upon which she could exert influence.
The awkward timing of her broken elbow -- coming right before a major trip to Russia, Italy (with the G-8) and Ghana -- certainly threw a curve into her plan. This president has, from day one, decided to be more hands-on with his foreign policy than his predecessor. That inevitably means the role of secretary of state is going to be different than even Colin Powell's during George W. Bush's first term. Bush needed a "good cop" to deal with the United Nations. Obama wants to address international bodies and foreign capitals, whereas Bush was wary of them.
Normally, a secretary of state would carve out territory during important first summits like the G-8 -- and certainly engaging with his/her Russian counterpart. Instead, Obama got the opportunity to be both president and chief diplomat (less successfully, by most reports, with Russia). He got to do another major "resetting" speech in Ghana (one which, unlike his address to the Muslim world in Cairo, was cheered by both liberals and conservatives back in America). And Clinton fell victim to the old, "out of sight, out of mind." problem.
So, did Hillary Clinton make a mistake taking the job? Domestic and foreign media alike are still entranced by the Clintons, so it is not surprising that the reports would start up so early that she has been sidelined. It's probably not wise to make those assumptions. Just as Bush needed Powell in the run-up to Iraq, Obama will undoubtedly need Clinton during an inevitable foreign policy crisis. She may prove to be a necessary "bad cop." Her speech to the Council on Foreign Relations was much more assertive/aggressive -- especially with regards to Iran -- than anything the president has said recently.
In short, it's way too early to count the lady out.