For me, the great political mystery of the last two years is not what makes Barack Obama tick, or where the Tea Party came from, but Hillary Clinton. Namely, why did she give up life tenure in a U.S. Senate seat from New York to join the Obama administration as secretary of state? I seem to be alone in my mystification.

The most compelling reason she took the job, I was informed during 2008-09, was obvious: Barack Obama’s presidency would be an historic presidency, and she had wisely embraced an opportunity to join the bandwagon. At the time, however, I felt otherwise, and thought she was foolish to abandon the Senate. Harry Reid was (and remains) a mediocre majority leader, and Edward Kennedy was dying. Once Kennedy passed from the scene, Clinton would have been the alpha Democratic senator, de facto leader of her party to whom her colleagues looked for guidance, and the only member with anything like a national following. Moreover, as a senator, Clinton would have no executive responsibilities--no record of failure--and as a member of the world’s greatest deliberative body, full freedom to say whatever she liked, at all times.

By becoming Obama’s secretary of state, however, she was not only obliged to surrender a hard-won office of high value, but she gave up her political autonomy in exchange for a slot on Obama’s team. No longer an elected member of the Senate, she would serve at the pleasure (or suffer at the displeasure) of the president. Nor did the fact that considerable hostility existed between the Obama apparatus and Hillaryland seem unimportant: The White House would use her name and reputation to its advantage, not hers, and go to some lengths to remind her periodically of her subordinate status. And so it has proved: Foreign policy is clearly debated and designed in the White House; the secretary of state administers her department and carries out tasks at the president’s (or more likely, David Axelrod’s) behest. It is not quite accurate to say that Clinton, as secretary, has been rendered politically null and void, but it is difficult to find her influence in American policy, or see her as essential to Obama’s success.

Now, of course, the Obama administration is at a crucial crossroads: The long-term success or failure of the president depends on his ability to recover from November’s shellacking, and Hillary Clinton plays no part in this process. Nor is she in a position to benefit from Obama’s weakness: No longer a senator, she is the focus of nobody’s thoughts about challenging a faltering leader from within his own party; as the senior member of Obama’s cabinet, she is wedded, for good or ill, to his fortunes. If Obama fails to be reelected, Hillary Clinton disappears into oblivion—the Cyrus Vance/Edmund Muskie of her generation. If Obama recovers, and wins a second term, he has little incentive to retain the services of his bitter 2008 primary rival.

If Clinton were to depart tomorrow, and ponder her prospects for 2012, she would be seen as a disloyal opportunist, forfeiting whatever standing she enjoys in her party. And by 2016 she would be 69—not ancient by modern standards, but not young, either, and representative of a quarter-century of Bill and Hillary Clinton in national politics. Traveling relentlessly across the globe, the public face of U.S. Mideast policy and public indignation about WikiLeaks, no wonder the secretary of state looks weary these days.

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