Overstated Differences: Obama and Clinton Steering the Ship of State


Mark Landler, Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power (Random House, 2016).

Exactly eight years ago, as what was then one of the longest, most expensive, and hard-fought primary campaigns in decades wound down, the Democratic foreign policy establishment was deeply divided between “Obama people” and “Clinton people.” Of course, most of the differences were exaggerated — after all, many of Obama’s senior campaign advisers had been senior officials under President Bill Clinton — but like any family of competitive hard-chargers, the disputes could become energetic and bitter, and many on both sides assumed an “us versus them” outlook. The two worlds dutifully unified for the general election campaign, but it always seemed an uneasy alliance.

Then, in December 2008, President-elect Barack Obama shocked the foreign policy and political worlds by asking his vanquished opponent, Hillary Clinton, to leave her safe Senate seat to become his Secretary of State. The surprise initially rattled Washington — it would not be the first time Obama made an unexpected, unorthodox move to defy conventional wisdom — yet the possibilities of this partnership were electrifying. National security wonks savored the opportunity to be part of the “team of rivals,” while many observers, especially journalists, licked their chops in anticipation of the stories that would inevitably pop from the combustible mixture of “Obama world” and “Hillaryland.”

This is the tale well told in Mark Landler’s compulsively readable new book, Alter Egos. Few reporters were as well-placed and experienced to watch this amazing story unfold than Landler, who covered it for The New York Times from the unique perspective of the State Department beat and the White House press corps. He delivers with a book packed with keen insights, gossipy details, and accurate portrayals of the most consequential players and policy decisions of our time (full disclosure: I have known Landler since his days covering the State Department and talked to him many times about his book, as well as for my own forthcoming book on Obama’s foreign policy).

For anyone interested in how U.S. national security policy is made at the highest levels, it’s all here: the debates over Afghanistan in 2009 and winding down the war in Iraq, the struggle over what to do about Libya and opening negotiations with Iran, the meltdown of Syria and how to handle a rising China and recalcitrant Russia. But this is not a boring policy tome, as Landler also gives readers a sense of life inside the policy machine –— how someone inside it can get consumed by the daily grind of meetings and emails, the grappling with intractable issues, the dealing with edgy or brittle (or simply overworked) personalities, and the constant stress of failing publicly. Beyond such hardships, one also sees the camaraderie and friendships that can form in the heat of bureaucratic battle and the making of history, even among those from rival teams forced together.

For most observers, and for journalists in particular, the biggest (and most frustrating) surprise of the Obama-Clinton partnership was how well it worked. Many predicted that the old wounds of the 2008 campaign would prove too deep to heal, that Clinton would try to encroach on the president’s turf or at least establish a rival power center like Dick Cheney did as vice president under George W. Bush. But it never happened. The fireworks never came. Instead, the two formed a remarkably successful diplomatic and political partnership devoid of anything like the kind of intrigue and rancor that riddled past administrations. To those reporters covering the White House and State Department, Landler concedes that the lack of Obama-Clinton drama “was stifling.”

This presents the biggest challenge for Landler’s overall argument. He asserts that Obama and Clinton represent two very different worldviews: They are, in his words, “the protagonists in the great debate over American power.” In this way, they are treated almost as binary characters: Obama was more radical and skeptical, while Clinton was traditional and unapologetic; he the hopeful idealist and she the realistic cynic; he the Woodrow Wilson to her Theodore Roosevelt; he the dove and she the hawk. Landler argues that these were differences rooted not just in politics or ideology, but reflective of their different backgrounds — Obama was the younger outsider who grew up as an African-American in Hawaii and Indonesia, while Clinton was the product of the middle class Midwest of the early 1960s.

Were there differences between them? Of course. Was it a clash of worldviews? Not in my experience. Having worked for both during Obama’s first term (2009 to 2011 at the State Department, and 2011 to 2012 at the White House), I was struck by how strong the partnership became and how their pragmatic styles were so similar. Their relationship rarely generated the kind of sparks or intrigue that observers craved. In fact, as Landler accurately shows, their closest aides worked well together, and the two leaders had each other’s back. Behind closed doors, Clinton did not tolerate snarky criticism of the president, and Obama dressed down staffers who would try to end-run the secretary of state. Sure, they did not look at every problem exactly the same way and, as Landler recounts, they sometimes had honest disagreements over tactics, tone, and some policy issues. But magnifying these differences and treating them as more fundamental than they actually are clouds the larger picture.

The two successfully pursued what Obama was elected to do (and why he chose Clinton to be his secretary of state), starting by restoring America’s strength at home by focusing on the economy, revitalizing alliances, and enhancing diplomacy and development alongside a strong defense as the “three Ds” of American power.  This included pursuing tough engagement with adversaries like Iran and Cuba, reducing the U.S. role in Iraq and renewing focus on Afghanistan while avoiding massive new military engagements, and rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific.  It also meant executing an even more lethal fight against terrorists while ending excesses like torture and pursuing bold policy initiatives on issues including climate change, trade, and nuclear disarmament. Clinton stood for all of these goals, too. This was a pretty dramatic shift from what came before and presents a very stark contrast from what would happen if the Republicans (especially now that they are led by Donald Trump) take the White House in November.

But in pursuing these ambitious goals, both Obama and Clinton had to confront the limits of American power.  This is not defeatist, but an acknowledgment of reality.  And yes, they sometimes approached this challenge differently. As I recount in my forthcoming book The Long Game, a revealing episode occurred in 2010, as Obama was surging troops into Afghanistan while establishing a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

In an August 2010 speech announcing the end of the combat mission in Iraq, Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office (a speaking venue he never liked much). That evening, Obama struck a somber tone, speaking of sacrifices and uncertainties. While he pledged that the United States would “honor commitments” abroad, it sounded as if this was something America would only do because it was obliged to do so, not because of its interests. Leadership seemed to be more of a burden than an opportunity.

This shows the challenge of defining foreign policy in negative terms — outlining what the country should not do and warning of the pitfalls to dodge — rather than one of ambition. How should a country seize opportunities while resisting temptations and avoiding mistakes? Obama found himself wrestling with this throughout his presidency, perhaps most famously with his admonition that his foreign policy could be summed up by the phrase “don’t do stupid stuff.”

Looking back, one of the most effective descriptions of America’s aspirations in the context of limits came not from Obama, but from Clinton. Listening to Obama’s August 2010 Iraq speech, the secretary of state lamented that it was a downer. She thought that rather than speak to the country’s hopes and opportunities, it went too far in setting a mood of pessimism and despair. She believed the message needed more “lift.”

There was no difference between Obama and Clinton in their views on the importance of domestic renewal and responsibly extracting the U.S. military from Iraq. Nor was there any meaningful difference on understanding the reality of limits and the importance of avoiding bad choices. But Clinton worried that this kind of talk could go too far, and that all the emphasis on renewal at home would be perceived as a sign of withdrawal. She warned the president that the perception of the administration’s accepting a reduced global role for the United States was gaining traction abroad. “When you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back,” she later told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward.” A big part of the problem, Clinton said, “is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”

In her own speech at the Council on Foreign Relations just a few days after Obama’s August 2010 Oval Office address, Clinton tried to tell this story. She did not deny the importance of restraint — after all, every nation must operate within limits. But she emphasized that the United States has the fewest limits of any nation globally, and she argued that the way the world is changing presents not just challenges but important opportunities given America’s capacity for innovation, its openness, and the respect it enjoys abroad. Clinton called this a “New American Moment,” one in which “global leadership is both a responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity.”

This assertion of confidence offered a more uplifting tone. However, Landler and other analysts assert that when compared with Obama, Clinton’s approach reveals a deeper disagreement about America’s role in the world. This overstates the differences between the two. Obama and Clinton agreed that there were real, growing constraints on American power — whether because of the shifting global landscape or urgent demands at home — but they also shared the core belief that American leadership could be renewed with the kinds of policies Obama and Clinton laid out as their affirmative agenda during their first years in office. In fact, Obama’s rhetoric in his last State of the Union address echoes Clinton’s call that, compared to any other country, this is America’s moment. As Obama has been saying a lot recently, if one had to choose one time to be born American, one would choose today.

This is a very different narrative than the one being peddled by Obama and Clinton’s opponents — one of fear, grievances, lack of confidence, and American decline. Seen this way, the “twilight struggle over American power” is not between Obama and Clinton, but between their shared vision and that of the Republicans. That debate, not the exaggerated differences between Obama and Clinton, is the central question of American foreign policy today. Landler helps shed valuable insight on one side of this debate, but to understand it fully requires a different book.


Derek Chollet is author of the forthcoming book The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World.  During the Obama administration he served at the State Department, White House, and Pentagon, and is currently with The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Image: White House