Why did he do it? What led US president-elect Barack Obama to tap his former adversary, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, to serve as his secretary of state, the face and voice of his foreign policy, his emissary to the world?
There are plenty of plausible explanations. One can imagine that he is applying that old adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
In one stroke, Obama gets control of the Clinton political machine: the network, the donors, and the constituency. And he neutralizes the Clintons’ famous skill at corrosive sniping and flamboyant stage-hogging — the kind that led former vice president Al Gore and former president Bill Clinton to be on barely speaking terms during the 2000 presidential campaign. With this appointment, Obama turns the big guns away from himself — and directs them outward. Shrewd tactics.
One can also imagine that he did it to secure the women’s vote. Not a single Democrat has won the White House without a substantial gender gap. But the exit polls and the data all show that Obama already has the support of a disproportionate share of American women. (The real news in his victory was that he got a chunk of white men, who rarely support a Democrat.)
Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Obama — the son of a strong single mother, raised also by an influential grandmother, man enough to marry an accomplished woman with opinions of her own, and a devoted father of two girls — understands in a whole new way how to draw and keep women. He recognizes that women will adore you when you include them as a matter of course.
Obama is surrounding himself with accomplished female advisers without calling condescending attention to that fact. If you are a woman watching, you feel in your gut that these women won’t be window dressing. They may succeed or fail; but they are really in the game.
But I don’t think any of those reasons, however compelling each one is, provide the strongest explanation of why Obama chose Hillary. I think he chose her because he understands that, even as president of the US, he is truly a citizen of a global community — one to which he is accountable and with which he is in an interdependent relationship. One of Hillary Clinton’s much-overlooked strengths is that she understands that, too — and has demonstrated that she knows what it means.
There is plenty in her experience as first lady that she has hyped. But one of her undeniable accomplishments, perhaps more important than anything else she did during that time, was the set of global journeys that she undertook on behalf of women’s issues.
She surrounded herself with extremely well-informed advisers who specialized in such important issues as women’s critical role in the developing world in raising educational levels, managing population growth, containing environmental degradation, and building up microcredit economies. She journeyed to Africa and to the Indian subcontinent, and spoke forcefully at the Beijing conference that brought women leaders together from around the world. The world’s top development experts now agree that resolving many of today’s cultural, environmental, resource-driven conflicts requires educating and investing in women, as she advocated.
But what distinguishes Hillary Clinton from Madeleine Albright or Condoleezza Rice is where she was willing to go for her education. She did not stay in the air-conditioned hotels and the parliamentary chambers of the nations she visited; she went to tiny impoverished villages, to places where women walk four miles a day for water, to places where women were basing their families’ prosperity on a US$20 loan for a sewing machine. She sat on mud floors and sandy village commons to hear from these communities about their issues and priorities, and she took on controversial and culturally sensitive subjects, such as female genital mutilation and bride burning.