How Will Clinton Navigate Between Bill and Barack?

It's one of the biggest psychodramas in Washington. Can Hillary corral her commanding personality and submit to President Obama's direction as secretary of state? Clinton's powerful, controlled performance at her confirmation hearing Tuesday—at which even most Republicans seemed rather tongue-tied—was another reminder that the woman is a force of nature, whatever you might think of her views. Psychologically, Hillary is used to dominating every room she enters. Intellectually, however, she understands that a secretary of state who falls out of step with her president is quickly rendered irrelevant—and sent into retirement.

Hillary also knows that, as one of her husband's former aides says, "if she does really well in this job for six years, she's perfectly set up to run for president again." Colin Powell, once America's most admired man—and a favorite to run for president in the '90s--is only the latest example of what can happen to a top diplomat who missteps on the world stage. When his relationship with Bush turned cold and distant, he found himself shrunken to tiny size, like the monster Grendel in the movie version of "Beowulf." Hillary would also be well-advised to bear in the mind the case of Jimmy Byrnes, Truman's first secretary of state. Byrnes thought he should have been president, and he tried to make his own foreign policy. He was fired a year later, to be replaced first by George Marshall and then by Dean Acheson, who became one of the most influential secretaries of state in U.S. history largely because of his fierce loyalty to Truman. "I have a constituency of one," Acheson liked to say.

But Hillary is starting out with many constituencies. There are her still-fervent former supporters from the presidential primaries, who will never forget that she beat Obama in key states like New York and Pennsylvania. There are the fellow senators she worked with—as Obama's senior—on Capitol Hill. And above all, she must balance her loyalty to Obama against her tireless defense of her husband's record. Obama's tenure, for many Democrats at least, will be measured against Bill Clinton's as much as George Bush's.

And then, of course, there is Bill himself, whose activities will no doubt be her biggest headache. "By herself, she's more than capable of adjusting to her new role," says the former top Clinton aide. "She's someone who has lived a long time in the shadow of somebody else. Look at her record. She did pretty well moving to Arkansas as first lady. After some initial mistakes in the presidential campaign [like dissing Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man"] she figured it out. And after screwing up royally on health care she assumed a completely different profile. She made the transition to senatorial candidate—and listener—in New York. She became incredibly effective working with the other side—even with Lindsay Graham, who impeached her freaking husband!"

This source suggests that it may be easier for Hillary to work with Obama than her own husband, because "Bill is fundamentally insecure, and Obama is not. That makes life easier. He's not going to feel threatened." In addition, the close friendship between Hillary's No. 2, incoming Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, and Tom Donilon, the putative deputy to designated national-security advisor James Jones, should help smooth over most disputes before they erupt into public view.

But few people doubt that, just as her husband's foundation was the main source of controversy at her confirmation hearings, Bill Clinton's irrepressible presence is likely to cause her some embarrassment during her tenure. Even with White House Counsel Greg Craig watching his speaking fees and appearances closely, the former president is bound to pronounce in public on any number of foreign-policy issues. Does anyone doubt that he has been bending her ear for weeks on just how close he came to achieving Middle East peace at Camp David and Taba in 2000—if only this, that and the other thing had happened?

At a recent State Dept. briefing, the Wall Street Journal reported, Hillary had to leave the room to take a call. When she came back she said, "There are now two men whose calls I always take—Bill and Barack." Very amusing. But whose call will take priority? Hillary's success at State could depend on the answer.