Obama decides on Clinton, aides say

Former rival and N.Y. senator ready to be secretary of state

November 22, 2008|By Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons | Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama has settled on former campaign rival Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state after a high-stakes courtship that is expected to lead to a formal announcement after the Thanksgiving holiday, aides to both said.

After an extensive examination of Bill Clinton's complicated financial dealings, the Obama transition team is satisfied that the nomination will not pose any conflicts of interest, an aide to the president-elect said.

On her end, Clinton is ready to give up her Senate seat and become the nation's top diplomat, taking one of the most prestigious Cabinet posts, friends and advisers said yesterday. They added that she has not yet accepted the job.

The developments came amid a blur of leaks yesterday that Obama was close to naming other members of his Cabinet. Among them: Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve, as his treasury secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for commerce secretary and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano for homeland security.

Obama plans to announce Geithner's appointment in Chicago on Monday, barring an unforeseen snag in a background check that is nearly complete, said one of the senior officials, both of whom were familiar with the deliberations. Officials did not give timelines for other announcements.

As recently as a few days ago, Clinton had not made up her mind about taking the position. She was prepared to return to her role as the junior senator from New York, her second-place finish in the Democratic contest still a fresh and painful memory. Democrats in the Senate have considered creating a new leadership position for Clinton, recognizing her stature within the party.

Obama's overture left her genuinely surprised and at a loss as to what to do, colleagues said. The two met face to face in Chicago on Nov. 13.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said she spoke privately with Clinton about the Cabinet prospect on Tuesday during a Democratic organizational meeting in the old Senate chamber.

"I kept saying I thought it was such a good fit for her," Boxer recalled. "And she said: 'I just wasn't thinking about this. This wasn't in my mind.' She was a bit thrown off by it. My strong impression was she really didn't expect it. She was planning her role in the Senate. Hillary is a very thoughtful person, and I could see she was really thinking it through."

The Obama transition team and Clinton's Senate office both said the nomination is "on track."

At least two other prominent Democrats were also in the running for the secretary of state job: Richardson and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.

After a withering campaign, bringing Clinton into Obama's circle was a feat of diplomacy in itself. As candidates, the two competed hard for the nomination, with loyalists trading tough charges.

In March, Obama's team put out a memo challenging Clinton's foreign policy credentials. Greg Craig, who worked in Bill Clinton's State Department, wrote that as first lady she "did not do any heavy lifting with foreign governments, whether they were friendly or not."

Obama recently named Craig to the post of White House counsel.

Obama and Clinton have also represented different factions in the party. He was favored by better-educated, wealthier voters; she by women and a more downscale swath of the electorate.

For Clinton and Obama to have gotten to this point testifies to their political maturity, Boxer said.

"If this were to happen, it's a wonderful signal about our president-elect and also shows that Hillary is willing to forgive and forget, too," Boxer said. "There's no question the campaign was tough. It was very tough. It says a lot about Barack Obama that he's willing to put it aside."

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