From Bitter Campaign to Strong Alliance
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WASHINGTON -- On a snowy Thursday shortly before her weekly meeting with President Obama last month, Hillary Rodham Clinton got a distressing phone call: her husband, Bill Clinton, was in a hospital with chest pains and needed an urgent heart procedure.
Mrs. Clinton kept her appointment with Mr. Obama in the Oval Office, taking her customary seat on the yellow sofa as the two talked about her coming trip to the Persian Gulf, where she planned to turn up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program.
"No one had any idea" that she might have had a personal worry, said a senior White House official who was present. Afterward, Mrs. Clinton raced for a shuttle flight to New York to see her husband.
But the fact that she first spent 45 minutes plotting Iran strategy with the man who beat her in a divisive primary campaign shows just how far Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have come since the bitter spring of 2008, when he sniped that her foreign-policy credentials consisted of sipping tea with world leaders, and she scoffed that his consisted of living in Indonesia when he was 10.
Sixteen months after Mr. Obama surprised nearly everyone by picking her as secretary of state, the two have again surprised nearly everyone by forging a credible partnership. Mrs. Clinton has proved to be an eager team player, a tireless defender of the administration, ever deferential to Mr. Obama and careful to ensure that her husband, the former president, does not upstage her boss.
Mr. Obama has been solicitous of Mrs. Clinton, yielding to her at times in internal debates, even showing signs of adopting some of her more hawkish world views.
They now joke about their "frenemies" status and have made gestures toward each other's families. When Mr. Obama learned that Chelsea Clinton had become engaged, he turned to Mrs. Clinton and asked, "Does she want a White House wedding?" a senior official recalled. (Mrs. Clinton declined, saying the offer was "sweet" but would be "inappropriate.") And when Mrs. Clinton traveled to Honolulu in January, she paid tribute to Mr. Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, in a speech she gave while looking over a garden dedicated to Ms. Dunham.
Still, there is none of the deep familiarity or the tight bonds -- the round-the-clock, back-channel access -- of their predecessors, Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, or going further back, James A. Baker and the first President Bush or Henry A. Kissinger and Richard M. Nixon.
"Hillary Clinton is the secretary of state," said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who has written about the shaping of foreign policy. "The question now is whether she becomes a real adviser, and whether he trusts her."
Mr. Obama has jealously guarded his prerogatives as the architect of American foreign policy, concentrating decision-making on crucial issues like Iran, Iraq and the Middle East in the White House. And Mrs. Clinton has yet to stake a claim to a core foreign-policy issue, the kind of signature role that would allow her nascent partnership with Mr. Obama to become a truly historic alliance.
Of course, they would have to make history first. So far, the administration's foreign-policy ambitions have been marked more by frustration than fulfillment, from a stubborn Russia and a defiant China to the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program and a deepening conflict with Israel, where Mrs. Clinton has loudly given voice to the president's dissatisfaction. Mr. Obama's dominant foreign policy concern -- the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- is still a work in progress.
Interviews with more than a dozen senior White House and State Department officials, and friends of Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, suggest that the president and his top diplomat are still easing into their alliance. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, but their accounts have been matched against those of other participants whenever possible. The officials and associates tell a story of painstaking cultivation and sublimated ambition, seat-of-the-pants diplomacy and ritualized White House meetings (she sips water; he munches an apple).
While their underlings at times grouse about one another -- some Clinton supporters call White House officials "The Cardinals" (to suggest that they are too controlling), and some Obama staff members refer to the State Department as "Hillaryland" (the campaign's leftover name for the enemy camp) -- Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton both have compelling reasons to make their relationship work.
For Mrs. Clinton, a successful stint in Foggy Bottom could add to her luster if she decides on another run for the presidency. For Mr. Obama, keeping Mrs. Clinton satisfied helps ensure that she will not emerge again as a rival, particularly if his current troubles deepen.
"We've developed, I think, a very good rapport, really positive back and forth about everything you can imagine," Mrs. Clinton said in a recent interview in her wood-paneled State Department office. "And we've had some interesting and even unusual experiences along the way."
The White House declined requests for an interview with the president.
A Delicate Dance
In the early days of the administration, aides said, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton treated each other gingerly, using Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as an informal go-between.
"Hillary would say to me, 'How do you think I should present this to the president?' " Mr. Biden recalled in an interview. "And I'd say, Whoa, just present it to him. And Barack would say, 'Does she know what a good job I think she's doing?' I'd say, Just tell her."
Part of this is simply who they are and what they had both come through. Mr. Obama can seem aloof even to close associates, and questions about Mrs. Clinton's reserved manner prompted Mr. Obama's memorably dry observation during a debate: "You're likable enough, Hillary."
Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton used humor publicly to take the sting out of their once toxic rivalry. At a summit meeting in April, Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, confessed that he had never expected Mr. Obama to be elected president. "Well, neither did I," Mrs. Clinton joked.
A few weeks later, at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, Mr. Obama celebrated his new chumminess with Mrs. Clinton. "The second she got back from Mexico," he said, "she pulled me into a hug and gave me a big kiss -- told me to get down there myself." Mexico was then battling a swine flu outbreak.
To make sure Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton talked to each other, White House officials scheduled a standing 45-minute meeting on Thursday afternoons. A handful of senior aides sit in, though Mr. Obama often clears the room at the end to talk to her privately. At last week's session, for example, the two discussed rebuking Israel for its plan to build Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem, and Mrs. Clinton followed up with a stern phone call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The meetings are sacrosanct for the secretary: after her plane broke down in Saudi Arabia last month, a frantic Mrs. Clinton ditched her traveling press corps to flag down Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command who had been meeting with the Saudi king, for a ride home so that she would not miss her session with the president the next day.
But a weekly one-on-one in the Oval Office is a far cry from the access that some of her predecessors enjoyed. In a joint Newsweek interview with Mrs. Clinton in December, Mr. Kissinger said he made a point of seeing Mr. Nixon every day when they were both in town.
"I see the president when I need to see him; I talk to the president when I need to talk to him," Mrs. Clinton countered in her later interview with The New York Times.
To White House officials who might have worried that Mrs. Clinton would establish a shadow government of sorts in the State Department -- or that she and Mr. Clinton would try to compete with Mr. Obama on the world stage -- she quickly offered reassurance.
She embraced the president's message of engagement, crisscrossing the globe to mend fences with Russia, mollify Pakistan and cheer up European allies. In China, she soft-pedaled human rights, even though she had championed the cause at a Beijing women's conference in 1995. She volunteered to defend Mr. Obama when he came under fire from the right for abandoning President George W. Bush's plans for missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Still, working for a global superstar can be a humbling experience. At the United Nations General Assembly last September, a coming-out party for both of them, Mr. Obama attended for four days instead of the customary one or two and dominated the event, leaving Mrs. Clinton on the sidelines.
In policy debates, Mrs. Clinton has picked her spots carefully. Last July, she appealed to Mr. Obama over lunch to send her husband to North Korea to free two American journalists jailed there. The president's advisers were uniformly against it, fearing that the visit would spill over into efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions. But the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, insisted on Mr. Clinton, and Mrs. Clinton argued that he could be counted on to stay in bounds.
"I agree with Hillary," the president said flatly, according to a senior aide who was present that day.
Trying to Define a Role
But it is not clear that she has played a pivotal role in larger matters. On the Middle East, traditionally the heart of the secretary of state's portfolio, Mrs. Clinton has seemed more of an enforcer of Mr. Obama's vision than a policy maker. Day-to-day diplomacy in the region is handled by a special envoy, former Senator George J. Mitchell. And the administration's first major venture into the peace process -- a fruitless effort to persuade Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in return for Arab gestures toward Israel -- was devised largely by Mr. Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
On Afghanistan, Mr. Obama heeded Mrs. Clinton's counsel to deploy more American troops, but she was echoing the recommendation of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. And on Iraq, he handed responsibility to Mr. Biden.
"You ask people who've been in government for a long time, and they would say this is one of the most centralized policy-making operations ever," said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The absence of a more spirited public debate within the administration, Mr. Gelb said, has not resulted in better policies. The White House has labored to "reset" relations with Russia -- an effort that suffered a setback in Moscow when Russian officials chose the day of Mrs. Clinton's visit on Thursday to announce that a nuclear power plant Russia was building for Iran would go online this summer. The administration is even more irritated with China, because a muscle-flexing Beijing has stymied Mr. Obama on everything from Iran to climate change to exchange rates and human rights.
Mr. Obama's determination to engage old adversaries has yet to produce results with Iran, and his plunge into Middle East peacemaking has so far precipitated an ugly dispute with Israel and little else.
"They haven't gotten the things they've wanted to get," said George Friedman, chief executive of Stratfor, a risk analysis company. "There's precious little to show for it."
Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, credits Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton with being "unusually inventive and forward-looking" in determining American foreign policy aspirations. But on the Middle East, Mr. Brzezinski said, he is "baffled" as to why Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama's other advisers did not work out beforehand what Mr. Obama should do if Israel rebuffed American demands.
"You don't go into a confrontation without asking yourself in advance, What will I do if the other side says no?" Mr. Brzezinski said.
Even on small matters, the White House has been intent on getting its way. One of Mr. Obama's key foreign-policy advisers, Denis McDonough, has clashed over ambassadorial appointments with Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl D. Mills, a negotiation that is more delicate than usual because the secretary of state, like the president, wants to reward political supporters. And Mr. Obama's advisers rejected a plan to give Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime Clinton family confidant, a consulting job at the State Department.
Administration officials insist that Mrs. Clinton joins in all major debates and voices her opinion. And they point out that she has taken the lead in rallying support for tougher sanctions against Iran. Iran's leaders have spurned Mr. Obama's olive branch, forcing the White House to pivot to the pressure campaign that Mrs. Clinton long believed was all but inevitable.
The president's national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, insisted that Mrs. Clinton had made some issues her own, citing her effort to make foreign aid a more integral part of American foreign policy. "She's on to something there," General Jones said.
Mrs. Clinton has also taken on duties that go beyond her job description. At the request of the White House, she made calls to wavering lawmakers to enlist their support for health care legislation late last year. When the House first passed its health care bill, she called the president at Camp David to congratulate him.
The praise has flowed both ways. One Saturday last October, Mr. Obama got news that Mrs. Clinton had salvaged a pact to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia after a last-minute snag had threatened to derail it. He tracked down Mrs. Clinton in her limousine in Zurich to congratulate her. "It was like a high-five coming through the phone," an aide said.
A Negotiating Team
For all the concerted efforts to make nice, though, it took the near collapse of the climate-change summit meeting in Copenhagen in December to get Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton working together without a script.
China and other big developing countries were balking at any deal that mandated reducing emissions. Europeans were declaring failure. On a rainy morning, Mr. Obama, fresh off Air Force One, arrived at the Bella Center, an emptied-out mega-mall, the shoe and clothing stores populated only by mannequins. His secretary of state greeted him with a warning.
"Mr. President, this is the worst meeting I've been to since the eighth-grade student council," Mrs. Clinton said, according to officials who were there. Negotiations had stalled; no one knew what to do next. There was not even a scheduled meeting for Mr. Obama to attend.
Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton concluded that the United States needed to confront China and the other countries. But for hours that day, leaders of those nations seemed to be avoiding the two Americans. Indeed, as they finally were making their way to meet with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China, two Chinese officials rushed up. "Not ready yet!" they said, motioning them away.
Mr. Obama shot Mrs. Clinton a glance. "Come on, let's just do this," he said, according to his aides. Mrs. Clinton plowed ahead, around the Chinese officials and into the room, where Mr. Wen and the leaders of Brazil, India and South Africa were seated. There was a collective gasp when Mrs. Clinton barged in, smiling. And then, right behind her, Mr. Obama. "Hi everybody!" he said. "Mr. Premier, are you ready to see me?"
Sitting side by side, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton negotiated for more than an hour, drafting language like the lawyers they are. In the end, the countries agreed to monitor progress toward pollution-reduction standards and set a goal to limit the rise in global temperatures. It was, by American and European standards, a spectacularly weak outcome.
But for the president and his secretary of state, it was a conspicuous personal achievement: they had passed their first major test of working together on the world stage. "This was an opportunity for us to basically make a decision that was not on anybody's itinerary," Mrs. Clinton said in the interview. "You went with your gut on this."
First Published March 19, 2010 2:01 am