Courtesy of CNN
Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, has been prevented from taking an active part in the presidential campaign. But, as Alex Spillius writes, she has been a unsung hero of Obama’s re-election.The first phone call Barack Obama placed after Mitt Romney had conceded defeat late on Tuesday night was to Bill Clinton, to thank him for his sterling work as a campaigner on the Democratic candidate’s behalf.
But the freshly re-elected president would have been equally justified in making that call to the other Clinton – Hillary, his secretary of state – who, against the odds, has proved to be the greatest asset in his administration.
Once Mr Obama’s nemesis, Mrs Clinton is now not only a close colleague but, it appears, a friend.
Protocol dictated that they should accompany each other to Andrews Air Force base in September to receive the bodies of the four Americans killed in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. It did not dictate that Mrs Clinton should squeeze the president’s hand after he had paid tribute to the fallen, or that he should put his arm around her waist as they stepped down from the podium.
What a contrast with 2008, when they repeatedly exchanged verbal – if not physical – blows as Mr Obama stunned the Clinton camp with his audacious capture of the Democratic nomination. To then offer his former rival the job of America’s top diplomat was a masterstroke of conflict resolution.
Mrs Clinton responded by carrying out her duties with a degree of commitment, dependability and flair that has earned her near universal admiration at home and abroad.
She has shaped and executed policy on the major issues with a mixture of adept public diplomacy and effective private arm-twisting, often drawing on contacts made during her eight years as First Lady.
In one telling recent episode, she learnt that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was going to be interviewed on more than one high-profile Sunday news show about Iran. Concerned that he would either exacerbate his already prickly relationship with Mr Obama or inflame international tension, or both, she contacted him directly.
During a 25-minute phone call, she reassured him that the US was firm in its commitment to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. His tone was duly more measured than on previous visits. “I have known Bibi a long time,” she told an American newspaper later, using the Israeli’s nickname. “I consider him a friend.”
She has been central to the administration’s “pivot” to Asia designed to counter China’s looming presence in the region. At her insistence, the Chinese have not been berated over human rights, but she has openly warned them against using force in their disputes over islands in the South China Sea.
Mrs Clinton was a leading voice for the successful intervention in Libya, and has maintained pressure on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian theocracy. She has been an unfailingly loyal soldier to her boss. The internal rivalries and personality clashes that marked her husband’s White House, and her 2008 campaign to a lesser extent, have been notable by their absence from her relations with her subordinates and with the White House.
As secretary of state, Mrs Clinton was barred from an active role in the campaign, but she craftily used her busy travel schedule to help Mr Obama fend off attacks from Mr Romney, who tried to portray the president as an apologist for American pre-eminence.
Steve Schmidt, a leading Republican strategist, described her as a “big shield for the president on any number of issues”.
None more so than Benghazi. As the administration faced growing questions about security at the consulate and why it had offered no explanations for the violence, Mrs Clinton took the heat off her boss.
The day before Mr Obama’s third and final debate with Mr Romney, on foreign policy, she said that the buck for the incident stopped with her.
“I take responsibility. I am responsible for diplomats,” she said.
Her intervention came at a crucial phase of the campaign. Mr Obama had potentially wrecked his re-election bid with a lifeless performance in the first debate. He had recovered somewhat in the second but needed to win the third convincingly. He did so, partly because Mr Romney thought better of tackling him on Benghazi after Mrs Clinton had drawn his fire.
If and when the full facts about Benghazi are known, they may well blot her copybook. But for now, Mrs Clinton is not only the best known but the most popular member of the Obama team with the American public.
Women, who contributed heavily to Mr Obama’s victory, generally love her. She and Bill have shaken off the bad memories from their 1990s occupation of the White House – her failed health care reform, his impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Among moderate Democrats and independent voters she has higher favourable ratings than the president, though she benefits from a day job that removes her from most of Washington’s wrangling.
It is no surprise, then, that friends are urging her to make another bid for the White House in 2016, when Mr Obama will reach his two-term limit.
“They are convinced she would have a very, very good chance,” said a former official in the White House. Mrs Clinton has said little that would effectively quell the conjecture in Washington. She recently said she had “ruled out” the possibility but in the same breath said she would “always want to be in service to my country”.
Her husband happily stoked speculation by describing her as the best public servant he had ever seen. “She’s an extraordinarily able person. I’ve never met anybody I thought was any better than her at this,” he said.
Certainly Mrs Clinton’s international counterparts would not be surprised to be meeting her in the Oval Office in four years’ time.
During a state dinner in China, she was reportedly told by a senior official that “you will be still young when you are president”.
At 65 now, that may be true in the Chinese context. But Mrs Clinton knows very well how long and how punishing an American election campaign can be, especially when you lose and especially if you will be pushing 70.
The former White House official thinks she may baulk at another bid.
“She would spend an enormous amount of time reliving the most unpleasant time of her life, hoping for a different outcome. She is the subject of universal love right now. Would she really want to give that away?”
Clinton insiders, and her husband, insist she has not yet made up her mind. Before the election, she repeatedly said she would stand down as secretary of state early in a second term, write a book and enjoy a rest.
Recently she has hinted at staying on a bit longer, at least until an investigation of Benghazi is resolved.
As both she and Bill have shown time and time again, it is hard to keep a Clinton down.
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