Hillary, I owe you an apology.
Back in 2008, I was sure – absolutely, completely, utterly sure – that Barack Obama would make a better president than you would. With the benefit of hindsight, I now think I was wrong.
I fell in love with Barack Obama because of his book. “Dreams From My Father” was nuanced, big-hearted, brave and painfully honest. It was, in other words, all the things American electoral politics is not.
I wanted a president like that. I wanted that so much, I convinced myself that Obama’s relative lack of Washington political experience didn’t matter. In fact, I convinced myself that his lack of experience was a plus: With only two years in the Senate, he was still uninfected by the Washington miasma of cynicism, falsehood, and pettiness.
Like many other once-ardent Obama supporters, I’ve spent the last five years with a mounting sensation of buyer’s remorse. “(I)f Obama puts into his foreign policy strategy one-tenth of the talent, innovation and discipline he put into his campaign,” I wrote after the 2008 election, “he'll be able to make real headway on a range of critical issues.” But in the Obama White House, innovation became reactiveness, discipline became rigidity, and a tight inner circle of campaign aides and Chicago pals tried to micro-manage the entire executive branch.
It’s been painful to watch the team that ran such a brilliant campaign flail around in search of a strategy, bungle their relationship with Congress, botch rollout after rollout, and miss opportunity after opportunity.
I still think Obama’s a whole lot better than the other guys would have been – for all the disappointments, his administration has scored some solid and important achievements. But I’m no longer sure he’s better than the other gal would have been.
Obama’s an introvert: Unlike your husband Bill, who draws energy from crowds and loves a good political brawl like other men love football, Obama’s clearly happiest within the small circle of people he knows and trusts. The tide of idealism that swept him into the White House sustained him through those hard months of campaigning, but wasn’t enough to carry him through the tedium of governing. He likes to read and write and think, but he doesn’t much want to shake hands, curry favor with grandstanding congressmen, or sit through ceremonial meetings with foreign dignitaries.
Look at his tight body language; listen to the undertone of irritation in his voice. Barack Obama is a man who almost always looks and sounds like he’d prefer to be somewhere else. He’s a politician who hates politics.
Hillary, I suspect that you don’t like politics any more than Obama does – but unlike Obama, you’ve schooled yourself to mix it up with the naturals. I still remember the Hillary of the early 1990s, with her unfashionable hair and her unscripted, impolitic comments. I liked that Hillary. But the right pilloried you and the press wasn’t much friendlier.
Yet inexplicably – and unlike Obama – you decided that you were going to learn how to be an effective politician, even if you hated every single second of it. You got knocked down and you just kept right on getting back up again. You survived Cookie-gate and Whitewater and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy and, well, let’s not go there.
You learned how to censor yourself. You got a stylist and a staff of loyal guard dogs; you developed a hard, polished protective shell. You ran for Senate, and charmed some of the same Republican senators who had once scorned you. You slogged away, getting political experience. You shook a million hands and smiled a big fake smile until your face looked like it might crack.
I didn’t like your polished shell, and I didn’t like your fake smile, but it’s 2014, and I’m ready to repent. Hillary, you did what you had to do to survive – and ultimately thrive – in a hostile political landscape. You learned how to work the levers of power, manage vast unwieldy executive branch agencies, and compromise, wheedle and trade – all things that Obama’s core team still seems to struggle with. Unlike Obama, who until recently led a fairly charmed political life, you had to learn, repeatedly, how to lose. Perhaps, in the end, that taught you how to win.
Hillary, I can’t say I’m a complete convert. I’d still like to see you take more political risks in public, even as I’ve reluctantly come to understand why you don’t. And I’m still troubled by the infighting that seems to dog your own inner circle, and the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” attitude exuded by many of your loyalists. I hope you will learn both from Obama’s mistakes and from your own: Without diversity, openness, humor, and a willingness to be challenged and to change, no team can succeed for long.