New York Times photo
New York Times photo

Ever since President-elect Obama made his selection of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State official, the notion has taken hold among the commentariat (both pro and con Hillary) that Mrs. Clinton will work hard for the Obama team, not for herself, in large part because she will have no choice. After all, Obama made it clear at the announcement that he would be in charge, listen to all points of view, and make the tough decisions.

Well, what else could he say? I’m sure he means it, but is it true that because he has the ultimate authority — he’s the “commander in chief” as the pols and pundits like to say — Clinton, Gates, Jones and all the rest will get on famously with each other, look to him for decisions, and always follow orders?

Maybe, but the point being missed in this new “narrative” is that Secretaries of State and Defense and other top-ranking officials don’t sit around a table exchanging ideas and await the big decisions from the President. They make decisions, to a large extent acting on their own necessarily broad authority. They often seek to create a fait accompli about policies they prefer or, at least, to push those policies along. They work tirelessly to influence the President’s decisions, not always by marshaling the best arguments. To get their way, they maneuver among themselves, leak to the press, and gather support from Congress and elsewhere to get the President to make the decisions they want. They easily fall to fighting among themselves, while each professes to be the strongest supporter of the Presidents policy goals. Every so often, one will put a challenge to a President’s face.

To a degree, this competition for policies and power is institutional. State, the civilian Pentagon, the military brass (indeed, the different services), CIA and others have different perspectives that derive from their separate roles, and these perspectives shape often-clashing policy alternatives. Even under the best of circumstances — an absence of urgency, a strong President, and top officials who don’t have political ambitions — these rivalries flourish. Look at the pushing and shoving in Reagan’s administration or Bill Clinton’s. When the going gets tough for whatever reason, the backstabbing can become vicious, as witness the conflicts within the Bush 43 and Carter administrations.

So that’s why Obama put a tough Marine, Jim Jones, in the National Security Adviser post, right? Probably, and it’s a great move. But few National Security Advisers have been able to keep everyone in line. Henry Kissinger did, but he may have been unique. More often, the holder of that post becomes just another rival.

Enter Hillary, the politician. I have to reiterate what I wrote before: I like Hillary; I voted for her in the primary; she’s smart, talented and tough. Unfortunately for Obama, those are qualities that make her more formidable as a Cabinet member who will want to get her way. But what makes her more likely than most to be a source of trouble for the President is the fact that she is a politician with a sizable constituency and a practiced ability to appeal to wide audiences. There has not been a politician in charge at Foggy Bottom (except for a couple of brief caretakers) since Harry Truman appointed a rival, James F. Byrnes, in 1945. That appointment was a terrible failure. Byrnes did not — as Hillary will not — await orders from on high or toss ideas around with his colleagues. He marched away to his own tune and Truman had to fire him.

The issue for Obama is this: if Hillary marches off on her own, will he be able to fire her?

More by John Burke at The Purple Center

Politics HRC: “Waiting for orders, Sir”