Obama’s Bad Cop
Clinton’s played the heavy with Iran, Russia, and even Israel—and her sometimes hawkish views are finding favor with the president.
By Michael Hirsh | NEWSWEEK
Published Apr 23, 2010
From the magazine issue dated May 3, 2010
It was almost like one of those moments in a buddy-cop movie when the two partners who dislike each other at the beginning finally bond while taking on the bad guys. In mid-December Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were in Copenhagen, where the leaders of more than 100 countries had gathered to negotiate a new agreement to combat global warming, and the summit was on the verge of collapse. Clinton later described it as the most disorganized meeting she’d seen since her eighth-grade student council. It “was just disintegrating right before everybody’s eyes,” she recalled to NEWSWEEK in an interview last week. Clinton and her former political rival, now the president, found themselves up against most of the rest of the world. At the last minute Obama sought a one-on-one meeting with the Chinese leader to rescue some kind of agreement, only to be told that Premier Wen Jiabao and his team still weren’t ready to meet (after two years of prior procrastination). “No, we’re going in now,” Obama declared, looking at Clinton. “Absolutely,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Clinton’s played the heavy with Iran, Russia, and even Israel—and her sometimes hawkish views are finding
FAVOR WITH THE PRESIDENT.
The former political rivals suddenly morphed into a diplomatic version of Starsky and Hutch. “I felt a particular responsibility since I had urged the president to come,” Clinton said. “Because I knew nothing was going to happen unless we gave it our all.” Striding down the hallway, with the Chinese protocol officer sputtering protests behind them, America’s two best-known politicians barged into the meeting room. There they found Wen conferring secretly with the leaders of Brazil, India, and South Africa; behind the scenes, Beijing had been trying to block all efforts to impose standards for measuring, reporting, and verifying progress on carbon reduction. Smiling and shaking hands, Obama and Clinton worked the room together, as they had each done so many times before as contending politicians. Then the president sat down and started negotiating, with Clinton sliding position papers to him as needed. When the Chinese finally caved, both Obama and Clinton knew that it wasn’t just because they had crashed the meeting. Two days before, the secretary of state had flown in to Copenhagen by surprise to deliver a sweetener to help win over developing countries. In essence, it was a global bribe: $100 billion a year from rich nations by 2020 to help poorer countries cope with climate controls. It was political hardball, Hillary style, and it had helped to isolate Beijing. Now Obama was closing the deal Clinton had set up.
The two came away from Copenhagen with a partial triumph and a new sense of maturity—both about their relationship and their sense of how to lead. Clinton later called it one of “the most extraordinary 48 hours she’s spent in public life,” said her global-warming negotiator, Todd Stern—which is saying something for a woman who’s lived through political tumult for 18 years, including several presidential and senatorial campaigns. Clinton told NEWSWEEK that it was important for America to be seen taking the lead in tackling seemingly impossible problems, particularly in an era with rising new powers at the table, if only to show what the country stands for. “We can’t just walk out of the arena and leave these important decisions to somebody else because it’s messy, it’s difficult, it requires compromise. That is what you have to do on the world stage today,” she said. “We remain the strongest country in the world, but the way we exercise that leadership has changed dramatically.”
Copenhagen also provided further evidence that the sharp differences between Obama and Clinton over foreign policy on the campaign trail were, as many on both sides now acknowledge, largely political theater. In fact, their views of American power had never been that far apart. “We’re both, at bottom, problem solvers and practical, realistic people,” Clinton says now. “As Mario Cuomo said, ‘You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.’?” Critics dismissed the climate targets as vague and voluntary, and the administration faces a separate onslaught from global-warming skeptics. But since the summit, 120 nations have signed on and 75 have submitted carbon-reduction plans, Stern says.
It took some time after the election for Obama and Clinton to find their balance together. They had fought one of the fiercest wars in American political history, and the wounds were still raw in the early months of the new administration. Clinton’s aides felt a chill from the advisers around Obama, especially loyalists like David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, and Valerie Jarrett. Though Clinton kept her head down while she mastered her brief as secretary of state—it was the way she took on every new task, methodically and tirelessly—she was also feeling a little deflated. Obama’s plea to join his administration had been enticing: he had his hands full with the collapsing economy, the new president said, and he needed someone of her stature to handle foreign policy. The implication was that she would have the dominant voice when it came to dealing with the world. Instead, friends and admirers were baffled at her seeming lack of influence. She “was not in the inner circle. That was clear,” says one aide who, like several others quoted in this story, did not want to be named discussing internal politics. Her bluntness abroad occasionally caused consternation in the West Wing, and Clinton, in turn, “complained about a lack of dissenting voices in the administration,” says an old friend who knows her from her first-lady days. “In the beginning she would say, ‘They want this, they want that,’?” meaning the White House. “It took a while for her to start saying ‘we.’?” Clinton and Obama had already begun bonding on previous trips abroad, but in Copenhagen the “they” truly became “we,” Clinton aides say.
Today, the metamorphosis of bitter combatants into bona fide partners is not quite complete, but it is far along. Clinton herself says she and Obama quickly established a “collegial partnership,” though she acknowledges that some of their aides “may have taken longer to shake off the vestiges of a very hard-fought campaign.” Some friends marvel at the equanimity with which she accepted defeat and quickly allowed herself to be absorbed into the new administration. “If you look at defeated presidential candidates, the ones who thought they had a chance, a lot of them go into deep funks,” says a former member of the Clinton administration who knows her well. “Kerry, John McCain. Al Gore took a while, too.”
Some of Obama’s most loyal aides have nothing but good things to say about their former political foe. “The bottom line is the president has always had a very deep respect for Secretary Clinton’s capabilities and contributions to the country,” says Denis McDonough, who is formally National Security Council chief of staff but plays a powerful role behind the scenes as a longtime Obama confidant. Obama was always one of her biggest fans, even in the immediate aftermath of the primaries, McDonough says, believing “that she made him that much better a candidate” and would do the same for his presidency. National-security adviser Gen. James Jones credits Clinton with being “one of the articulators of the overall strategy that we all adopted” on Iran and China.