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The Hangover

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The lingering hangover from Barack Obama's victory Tuesday night is his opponent Hillary Clinton.

Tomorrow Clinton will publicly endorse Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. This will be just a formality, since she sent out an email to her supporters Wednesday night saying that she would endorse the Senator from Illinois and work hard toward his election. The problem for Obama from tomorrow forward will be what to do with the Senator from New York. Any course of action has consequences, and the consequence for Obama in limping across the finish line of the Democratic race, winning less than half of the last sixteen primaries, will be having to give Clinton a role in his administration if she wants one. But what role would that be? Figuring out where he wants her and then placing her there will be Obama's first test of presidential-style leadership.

2008-06-03-otb_onthetrail_v2.jpgOver the last six months, an Obama-Clinton ticket has gone from the naivest of fantasies on the part of the candidates' most clueless supporters to a seriously sensible and pragmatic option. However much Democratic poobahs may reassure that the party will come together in the fall, they're whistling Dixie. Many of Clinton's supporters don't like Obama, for a myriad of reasons not to get into here, and will not vote for him. I've met too many of these people all across America to discount the effect they will have on the vote. Bringing Clinton onto the ticket, therefore, would bring real closure to the race and begin to heal the divisions. More importantly, Clinton would provide Obama those elusive working class, small town and rural white Americans, as well as her own Hispanic supporters, in key states. Can anyone doubt that she would work tirelessly to persuade these stubbornest of Reagan Democrats for Obama? A joint ticket would be the easiest and simplest way to garner these votes that Obama will need to win in November.

But a joint ticket is unlikely, and not for the reason most pundits are advancing--that it would make Obama look weak to have to take her on. In fact, Obama would prove his strength by managing her. And in the end, Clinton herself is a team player as well as competitive with herself. She would be determined to outperform Gore, whose reputation as the best vice president ever has largely been forgotten. Gore worked intelligently and skillfully behind the scenes in the Bill Clinton Administration on building a relationship with Russia and on dismantling nuclear stockpiles in the new states born out of the old Soviet Union. Clinton would strive to match Gore's record of accomplishments, as well as his fealty.

Americans are quickly going to find, however, that Obama does not have to prove strength. It's been amusing listening to Maureen Dowd call him "Bambi" and "Obambi;" but she has the wrong animal. Obama's self-confidence, which can sometimes betray him, nevertheless rests on bedrock latent power, which unleashed is going to surprise a lot of people, both opponents and supporters. At least, that's my prediction.

The core problem is Bill Clinton, and at this point there's no need to go into reasons why. If the former president could be sent off to Africa, from which we would get the occasional news of his foundation's good works, from which he would occasionally appear before us via satellite feed uttering a lofty paragraph or two, then perhaps Hillary Clinton could serve Obama as his vice president. But the former president will not be so easily banished.

Then how to use Hillary Clinton? And what, once she has had time to reflect, will she want? What would she be willing to take? Her concerns for women and children, from her days at Yale on, have been her public focus and have provided a major theme of her campaign. It seems to me that in her life's work, as she has sometimes defined it, a President Obama could define her role. He can name her to his cabinet and keep her close, the way Lincoln did Seward. Or he can create for her a new position and see what she makes of it.

A few weeks ago, Virginia Rivera, the Vice-President for Development at Mills College, described to me her recent trip to Saudi Arabia to meet with Mills alumnae. One was the first Saudi woman allowed to matriculate in the United States. The rest had come as a group to Mills in the 1980s. The first evening of the visit, the alums and their husbands had entertained with a dinner, at which only the husbands spoke, asking Mills President Jan Holmgren about the upcoming U.S. elections and expressing their own preference for Barack Obama. The next and last evening, the alums themselves, along with friends and family, hosted a meal. It was a women-only affair. All the Mills alums said that they were hoping that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. "If the United States cannot elect a woman president," one Saudi said to Virginia Rivera, "what will become of us?"

In the optimism over the possibilities in restoring America's image in the world through electing Barack Obama, the dominant narrative of the Democratic race never focused on the possible larger and international meaning of a Clinton presidency. There are many implications in this disparity to ponder. Practically, in the here and now, is an avenue down which a President Obama could find a place for Hillary Clinton. Through her long career, from the time she was a law student at Yale, Clinton has worked on women's and children's issues. In an ombudsman role, perhaps one that Obama and Clinton create as they go along, Hillary Clinton could continue to do what she always has done, and that is to spotlight, to address and to work for women's rights and children's rights at home and abroad.