By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
When President Barack Obama asked New York Sen. Hillary Clinton to join his cabinet as secretary of state, the move was widely praised. Clinton, his principal rival for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, added a measure of gravitas to his team of advisers and would, it was suggested, help unite the president's party at a time the Republicans appeared to be on the verge of complete collapse.
At the time, comparisons were made to Abraham Lincoln. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts in her book Team of Rivals how the 16th president of the United States invited others who held leadership claims on the new Republican Party into his cabinet in an effort to present a united front. But Lincoln's decision to invite his rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination--William H. Seward, Edward Bates, and Salmon P. Chase--into his administration was also a matter of political preservation. Their inclusion in the cabinet kept them inside the tent looking out rather than outside the tent looking in, forcing an alliance with Lincoln as the Union threatened to come apart.
It will be up to history to judge whether Obama's selection of Clinton falls in the same category. Whether it does or not depends on what Clinton decides to do.
She is not, unsurprisingly, speaking publicly about her intentions beyond saying, as she told PBS's Tavis Smiley in an interview that airs Wednesday night, that she is "absolutely not interested" in running again for president of the United States. But in the same interview Clinton also allows that her current job is a difficult and time-consuming one and that, while she is honored to have it, she cannot see herself serving in the same post in a second Obama administration.
The ongoing decline in the president's approval ratings has more than a few Democrats concerned. The Democratic defeats in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections and the Massachusetts Senate race have a number of them running scared, in much the same way that the party's poor performance in 1978 helped propel Sen. Edward M. Kennedy forward to challenge incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
The chatter has increased in recent days about Clinton leaving the cabinet sometime in the first term, likely over some matter of principle, so that she can position herself to challenge Obama in 2012. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking on the part of those Democrats who have already grown tired of Obama. What is true is that Clinton can still mobilize the political infrastructure necessary to mount an effective challenge to the sitting president. A primary challenge against a sitting president whose approval numbers are above 50 percent and one mounted against an incumbent who is below 50 percent are two very different things, a fact of which the Clinton political team is surely aware.