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A Test Of Rivals

This analysis was written by CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs.



With his economic group largely assembled, President-elect Barack Obama today unveiled a foreign policy and national security team notable for including both a current member of the outgoing Republican administration and his major political opponent in the Democratic Party. By doing so, Mr. Obama is putting his oft-repeated desire to assemble a "team of rivals" to perhaps the ultimate test.

The retention of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense fills two needs for the incoming president as prepares for extraordinary challenges both at home and abroad. First, it provides some practical stability in the midst of two wars, one in Iraq where circumstances have changed in the past year and one in Afghanistan that has become a greater focus for the Defense Department. Secondly, it fulfills a campaign promise to include Republicans in his cabinet, and not in a minor position at that.

But the selection of New York Senator Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State is a far more complicated and curious choice. On the single greatest foreign policy issue of the past decade, Mr. Obama and Clinton took opposing sides and those differences created the biggest flashpoints in their battle for the Democratic nomination. In fact, Mr. Obama may never have gotten the chance to select a cabinet of any kind were not for his opposition to the war in Iraq from the very beginning.

Then an unknown Illinois state senator, Mr. Obama delivered a barely-noticed speech outlining his reasons for opposing the use of force in Iraq while Clinton voted for it in the U.S. Senate. By the time the presidential campaign rolled around, Mr. Obama had joined Clinton in the Senate and while his voting record was similar to hers on Iraq-related issues, his initial opposition had become very attractive to a Democratic Party hungry for change, particularly on the war.

Clinton responded to Mr. Obama's growing candidacy with an argument of experience, one that culminated in one of the most memorable ads of the campaign, the "3am" ad. "It's 3am and your children are safe and asleep," the ad began. "But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something's happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call. Whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It's 3am and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?"

Despite having not even vetted Mrs. Clinton to be his running mate during the campaign, Mr. Obama has answered that question by ensuring in a very real way that both will likely be involved in any of those phone calls. Less clear is whether the two former opponents will respond with one voice. For much of the past year, Mr. Obama countered Clinton's claims of experience with criticisms of her judgment. Now both are going to have to swallow their words in common cause.

In their comments during today's announcement, both made clear they plan to do just that with Mr. Obama bestowing his "complete confidence" in Clinton and the nominee responding by pledging to give the job "my all" and praising Mr. Obama's election. But Mr. Obama at the same time made crystal clear that he would be setting policy for the administration and expects his appointments to carry out his vision.

Past campaign differences aside, Clinton brings some obvious strengths and weaknesses to the job of the nation's top diplomat. She's instantly recognized all over the world and has relationships with many foreign leaders. Her focus on foreign policy and national security in the senate provides depth to a new president relatively inexperienced in world diplomacy.

But, as the wife of a former president with wide-ranging world interests and relationships of his own (all reportedly thoroughly vetted by the Obama team), Mrs. Clinton will have to make sure to present a united front with Mr. Obama from the get-go to avoid perceptions that she is operating outside of the new administration.

These latest additions to Mr. Obama's team may signal a more cautious approach to international affairs than he indicated during the campaign but also a recognition that experience is as much desired in his administration as change. And with economic concerns dominating the agenda, Clinton and Gates provide a solid base on the security front.

In a practical sense, Clinton's arrival at the State Department "will immediately send several signals to foreign leaders," said CBS News' State Department reporter Charles Wolfson. The selection says "that the new occupant in the White House is not afraid to have former political rivals in positions of power and influence and that he is sending a strong personality already well known on the international stage to move his foreign policy objectives forward."

Still, Clinton "will inherit a plateful of problems," says Wolfson. "Ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may top the agenda but Iran and North Korea's nuclear ambitions will continue to be front and center and Washington's relations with Moscow and Beijing are always a major concern." Mr. Obama has chosen his former political opponent to help him handle such issues which, if not on the front-burner, are of enormous import to his presidency.

In announcing his new choices, Mr. Obama stressed the pragmatic nature of the team, which also includes former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder for the top spot in the Justice Department, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of Homeland Security, retired General James Jones as National Security Adviser and adviser Susan Rice to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. (Click here for all the latest information on Mr. Obama's cabinet choices.)

"To succeed, we must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances, and integrates all elements of American power -- our military and diplomacy; our intelligence and law enforcement; our economy and the power of our moral example," Mr. Obama said. "The team that we have assembled here today is uniquely suited to do just that. … They share my pragmatism about the use of power, and my sense of purpose about America's role as a leader in the world."

This team is certain to have that pragmatism tested early and often, no member more so than Mrs. Clinton. Questions asked of the president-elect in this morning's press conference were focused as much on their past differences as anything else and those questions are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

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