WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bounded back into the public arena in a choreographed event Wednesday aimed at reasserting her position as the Obama administration's top diplomat.
A month's recovery from a fractured elbow had limited her exposure and contributed to the impression that she had been eclipsed by other heavyweights.
Appearing before a crowd of hundreds to outline U.S. foreign policy goals, Clinton defended President Barack Obama's desire to reach out to adversaries – an approach that Clinton had disparaged as a White House candidate.
"We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage," she said in her address to the Council on Foreign Relations. Clinton took sharp aim at Iran, saying it must act soon to accept U.S. overtures or face new penalties and greater isolation.
Despite offering no new specific proposals, the speech marked Clinton's re-emergence after an injury that forced her to cancel two overseas trips and numerous meetings.
After the speech, Clinton went to the White House for private talks in the Oval Office with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Officials said the visit was among the regular sessions she has had with the president and his national security aides.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Clinton and Obama "enjoy a very close relationship. The secretary of state is somebody who the president relies on greatly. She has an enormously important role in the development of and the execution of a foreign policy that changes our image in the world. ... I think the notion that there's some rift or disagreement is nothing more than silly Washington games."
But even those meetings were part of a day carefully primed to accentuate Clinton's return.
The State Department went to great lengths to promote the address. Aides billed it as a "major foreign policy speech," and took the unusual step of releasing excerpts for publication to journalists three hours before it began, then set up a conference call afterward with two senior officials to discuss it.
The audience consisted mainly of Washington insiders, with a liberal sprinkling of Clinton confidantes, including speechwriter Lissa Muscatine, and potential rivals in the foreign policy realm. They included three special envoys – Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell and Dennis Ross – who have been given large portfolios that some believe have detracted from Clinton's clout.
Set to depart Thursday on an around-the-world trip, Clinton no longer wore the black sling on her arm. She did not appear to show any signs of discomfort as she gesticulated with her hands during the speech.
Her limited presence recently, followed by her startling public criticism of the White House this week for delaying a key appointment, has led to much speculation about whether her influence is waning.
Yet if Clinton herself felt marginalized, she gave no such impression. She laughed and shook her head when the council's president, Richard Haass, noted in his introduction that six previous secretaries of state had become presidents.
Some foreign policy observers say Clinton has been long overdue in carving out her own diplomatic persona.
"Her role so far has been more in the field of public relations than in policy formation," said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "She is seen as glamorous and in many countries as a valuable symbol of the United States, but it is not at all clear that she has an in-depth influence on foreign policy."
"She needs to decide if she wants to be the administration's mascot or have an impact on actual policy," he said. "If she wants to have an impact, the speech may be a way of claiming her stake."
Clinton's frustration appeared evident Monday. In a rare fit of pique, she lashed out at the White House for failing to quickly nominate someone to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In rather undiplomatic comments, Clinton criticized the White House background checking process as a "nightmare," "frustrating beyond words" and "ridiculous." She added that overly burdensome financial and personal disclosure requirements had led several candidates to withdraw.
The White House declined comment on the remarks and Clinton returned to the theme on Wednesday with more delicate language. In response to a question about the challenges of government, she said she never envisioned it would take so long to get a full team on board.
Clinton aides say she is eager to get back to what had been a busy pace of travel and events. They deny any rivalries within the foreign policy team and reject suggestions she has been forced into a back-seat role.
But they acknowledge that she has chafed under the limitations imposed by her injury, which notably caused her to miss important conferences in Europe in late June and to be unable to accompany Obama to Russia last week.
Still the impression persists that she lost clout in her absence, as Obama traveled frequently in an elevated foreign policy role that some observers have described as "diplomat in chief."
Biden has assumed an increasingly public role in diplomacy in Iraq and has waded into both the delicate Mideast peace process and into American relations with Iran. National security adviser James Jones has shaped his own high-profile presence, while a group of special envoys have pursued shuttle diplomacy from Jerusalem to Kabul.
Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said it is still too early, six months into the administration, to assess Clinton's influence.
"Every president always overshadows every secretary of state, that's just the nature of the beast," he said. "But a secretary of state carves out a niche by picking out an issue, or two or three, and taking it as his or her own. She hasn't yet done that, at least not yet."