President-elect Barack Obama's introduction on Monday of Sen. Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state and Robert Gates as his secretary of defense would have been hard to imagine a few weeks ago — and unthinkable a few months ago. The former first lady waged an unusually long, contentious battle with Obama for the Democratic nomination and recently focused on returning to the Senate. President Bush's defense secretary professed no interest in staying on for a new administration headed in a new direction. Now they will head Obama's national security team, and it will be up to the new president to steer this team of rivals toward common goals.
The appointments reflect the qualities that drew many voters to Obama. He has the persuasiveness to convince onetime opponents or doubters to embrace his cause. He is confident enough to surround himself with smart public servants who have longer political resumes or more experience. He is pragmatic, and he does not shy away from hearing different viewpoints. Those traits served him well during the campaign, and they can be just as effective in the White House.
Clinton has unquestioned star power and the greatest political stature of any secretary of state in decades. She is well-known in capitals around the world, and she has a combination of on-the-ground experience from her tenure as first lady and policy expertise from her time in the Senate. Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is a centrist respected by members of both political parties and the military. He deserves credit for advocating a military surge in Iraq that helped head off civil war and reduce the violence. It makes sense to maintain continuity now as the United States prepares to reduce the number of troops there.
Obama has had his differences with Clinton and Gates. After all, Clinton initially supported the war in Iraq and Obama opposed it. She aired the critical ads about answering 3 a.m. telephone calls in the White House, and she was among those who questioned his approach to diplomacy. Gates has been overseeing the war that Obama wants to end, and Gates opposed setting a timetable for troop withdrawals that Obama supported. But campaign differences have a way of fading, and there is common ground among the three on a new approach toward foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy and re-establishing America's credibility in the world. The troop withdrawal from Iraq is a foregone conclusion, and Obama has signaled he is flexible on the timing.
There is no guarantee this team will be cohesive. Clinton and Gates have their own power bases. Even when the goal is clear, there will be differences on how to get there. Former President Clinton, despite his pledge to release the names of donors to his foundation and submit his speaking schedule and new sources of income to ethics reviews by the State Department, can be counted on to pop up at inopportune times. But the Bush administration has demonstrated there also are inherent risks in not welcoming divergent views.
The appointments of a former campaign rival and Bush's defense secretary will disappoint Democrats who expected Obama to veer to the left. Yet change comes in many forms, and the president-elect's national security team represents a change in governing style even if the names are familiar. It is an impressive team, and it will be up to the new president to make it function like one.