A similar version of this article originally appeared in King’s College London Politics Society’s journal Dialogue, which can be found here.
A short five years ago, presidential candidate Barack Obama condescendingly equated his primary opponent’s experience as first lady of the United States to only sipping tea with foreign leaders. One year later, after a bruising primary campaign and an equally bruising general election battle, Obama asked that former first lady for her help in drinking the most important cups of tea of all: those served to the secretary of state.
Today, Secretary Hillary Clinton has made her mark in four brief years as secretary of state: she has visited over a hundred countries, and, as PolicyMic’s Lindsay Novic has noted, has carefully navigated through the WikiLeaks storm, pushed for democracy in the Middle East, and kept a close eye on human rights. At the same time, she is the nation’s most-liked woman, with sky-high approval ratings, and an inspiration for young girls across America.
Hillary Clinton has done so well at State because she is Hillary Clinton, an identity that no other can hope to emulate–she entered State already having fostered relationships with the world’s leaders (that’s what all that “tea” was about), having established a global identity, and having proved her prowess on the world stage. Not to mention that she also has a habit of making history: from her speech at her Wellesley College commencement, to her election to the Senate as a first lady, and through her historic primary victories eight years later. With those credentials, it’s not surprising that the same Democrats that shunned her in 2008, likely due to personal insecurities and wishful thinking about the alternatives, are now singing her praise. This, along with a seemingly thin 2016 field for Democrats, may very well put the top job within her grasp in four years.
However, Secretary Clinton’s gaze does not yet stretch four years ahead, but is focused on this coming year. Clinton has repeatedly stated that, having no political ambitions for the future, she looks forward to stepping down from the helm of State after President Obama’s first term. So, whether Obama wins or loses this November, one thing is certain–Clinton will no longer be the face of America abroad. This development, which we have known for months was coming, brings up two questions: why is Clinton leaving State, and what might State look like for the next four years?
Firstly, Hillary Clinton has a lot of good reasons for packing her bags and leaving Foggy Bottom. Few people, other than her supporters, believe her official stance of her needing to escape from what she calls the “high wire of American politics.” Without over-analysis, it does makes sense: she has spent decades directly involved in roles of serious national importance, and the next presidential term offers her the chance for a well-deserved break.
However, others believe that Clinton isn’t calling it quits permanently, and that 2016 is still very much on her agenda. This is linked to the fact that, according to author Ed Klein, she turned down the vice presidential spot on Obama’s 2012 ticket. For those who take this scenario seriously, she not only needs time to rest and recuperate, but to distance herself from Obama’s polarized presidency. That way, if Obama loses, she would not be tied through the 2012 ticket to his failures, and if he wins, she will be able to claim enough of a difference between her and his policies to establish herself as a unique voice on the Democrats’ side in 2016.
Regardless of Clinton’s plans and aspirations, the fact that she is leaving remains the same. But depending on who then wins this November, we could have two very different State Departments come next year.
A Republican State Department will likely be more assertive, more confrontational, and more unrelenting–the Grand Old Party has grown tired of what they see as Obama’s four-year “apology tour.” Nevertheless, it is unclear who would lead a Republican State Department. The Romney administration will probably want to restore the aura of “American exceptionalism” on the world stage. However, with the possible president’s recent underwhelming overseas trip, he may be advised to follow Obama’s lead and tap a familiar face to global diplomacy who can stand well on his or her own feet.
If Obama is fortunate enough to keep his job, there are a number of senior American politicians who seemed eager for the spot in 2008, and who now may once again come into contention. John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who ran for the top job himself eight years ago, seems to be the overwhelming favorite. With global recognition, as well as years of experience as a statesman, it seems that Kerry’s name is coming up in pundits’ speculations numerous times. A Kerry State Department may give us a glimpse of what a Kerry presidency may have looked like. It would be much like the State Department of Obama’s first term, but State would likely lose its “chic,” unique branding that has come with Clinton’s tenure. It would also perhaps be less exciting, because without Clinton’s celebrity pushing her to the forefront of foreign presses, it would operate at a calmer pace, signifying a slowing down of Obama’s presidency as he winds down his own tenure.
Though Clinton’s departure from State opens exciting possibilities for her own career and future role in her country, it puts America in a highly unpredictable position when it comes to the tone diplomacy will take for the next four years. Whether Romney or Obama wins will not only determine whose portrait hangs in embassies and consulates worldwide, but also whether America’s newest top diplomat will be able to successfully restore the country’s reputation in the eyes of an increasingly cautious and skeptical world. Tea or no tea, Secretary Clinton will be hard to replace.
Photo Credit: Frank Plitt, via Wikimedia Commons