Commentary: Obama gives Hillary Clinton a chance to shine

Sen. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton laugh as they head to New Hampshire
Sen. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton laugh as they head to New Hampshire Alex Brandon / AP

Finally, Hillary Clinton is paired with a man who respects her.

No, there's no gossip a la Madonna and A-Rod here. Clinton is very much still devoted to her Bill, whether he deserves it or not.

But in Barack Obama, who nominated her as his secretary of state, she has found a man who could give her the platform to truly step out of her husband's shadow. It's an interesting twist given that a few months ago he was Clinton's bitterest political adversary. But such are the fleeting fancies of politics.

After having upstaged his wife at various points during her campaign, Bill is thankfully not in the control room this time around. Nowhere near it. In fact, he's graciously accepted that his foreign speeches and his work raising money for global causes will all have to be vetted by his wife's new office.

Now it’s Hillary's turn to shine. Obama has literally put the world between her and her heretofore most notable role: the wife of Bill. Yes, she is a senator, and she very nearly was the Democratic presidential candidate in an election she almost certainly would have won. But she should be quite pleased with this new opportunity to show what she's really capable of.

Best of all, she won't be scrutinized through the prism of gender. As secretary of state, there will be no burden of being "the first" to weigh her down — as in "the first female president." Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice paved the way nicely here. Besides, gender seems to be of declining importance to the public these days as far as Cabinet postings go. According to a new poll by Lifetime Networks, 67 percent of women said that, in making Cabinet appointments, President-elect Obama should weigh qualifications only. A mere 27 percent preferred that Obama pick a Cabinet with a balance of men and women. And 71 percent polled gave Clinton's nomination a thumbs up.

Perhaps most surprisingly, given the contentious presidential campaign, an overwhelming percentage of women (58 percent) said they would rather see her as secretary of state than as president (18 percent).

The job of secretary of state comes with a heady dossier, now more than ever. Among all of the Obama appointments so far, this one may bear the greatest price for failure, what with pirates on the seas, threats of terrorists gaining access to nuclear arms, and a face-off beginning between Pakistan and India.

"Hillary's appointment is a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances," Obama said in announcing the nomination.

It was a statement that many question for its honesty. Can these two play nice? If Clinton doesn’t have the full weight of the White House behind her back, her effectiveness will be undermined.

But not considered in this line of thought is that Hillary Clinton already has the respect of many foreign leaders. No, she did not land under fire in Bosnia, as she initially tried to assert during her campaign. But in global prestige, she was a first lady unlike any other, save for perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt. That clout, or rather familiarity with world leaders, may give her the necessary edge.

Some believe women reach their greatest potential only when they step out of the shadow of a man. And the relationship doesn’t have to be negative, or one of romance, for this to be true.

Hillary Clinton's qualifications to be president were never the issue; she just wasn't enough people’s first choice. She wasn’t mine. But the 2008 election matters little now. Obama and Clinton have history to make, and it will be interesting to see how they make it together.

Even radio gabber Rush Limbaugh, long among Clinton’s most vociferous foes, praised her nomination as secretary of state. His rationale, however, was predictably cynical. Said Limbaugh: "How can she run for president in 2012? She’d have to run against the incumbent and be critical of him — the one who made her secretary of state."

But you never know. Politics, like love, can be fickle.

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