Barack Obama Unveils National Security Team, Taps Former Rival Hillary Clinton for State

President-elect introduces his national security team in the shadow of Mumbai.

ByJAKE TAPPER via logo
December 1, 2008, 8:36 AM

Dec. 1, 2008 — -- President-elect Barack Obama presented a national security team today whose members have widely divergent points of view from Obama and one another.

Besides Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's nominee for secretary of state, the president-elect has decided to keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates, appointed by President Bush, in that position, and has nominated Sen. John McCain's old friend, retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, to become national security adviser.

Obama presented his national security team as a "new dawn of American leadership."

Although today's press conference had been planned for some weeks, Obama quickly acknowledged that his appointments were being made in the shadow of terrorism, a reference to the attacks in Mumbai, India.

"Last week, we were reminded of this threat once again when terrorists took the lives of six Americans among nearly 200 victims in Mumbai," he said.

Obama said he and his national security team met early today "to discuss the situation in Mumbai and some of the challenges that we face in the months and years ahead."

"I am absolutely committed to eliminating terrorism," he vowed today.

After acknowledging the continuing menace of terrorism, Obama said, "In this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning -- a new dawn of American leadership."

Obama charged his team with protecting the nation by relying on a "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."

The lineup of Cabinet members that stood behind Obama today at his Chicago news conference is a high-powered and experienced crew, topped by Clinton, his former rival and now his and choice as the nation's top diplomat.

Although Clinton and other nominees have clashed with Obama's positions on foreign policy and national security in the past, he praised them today as a smart team for change

"I am going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House," Obama said. Asked by ABC News if he'd sought private assurances from individuals in his Cabinet who have expressed differences with his views that they'd be able to carry out his vision regardless, the president-elect said, "I did not ask for assurances from these individuals that they would agree with me at all times. I think they understand, and would not be joining this team unless they understood and were prepared to carry out the decisions that have been made by me after full discussion."

In his prepared remarks, Obama noted, "They share my pragmatism about the use of power."

Obama's Team of Rivals

Obama's national security lineup also includes Susan Rice as United Nations ambassador, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and Eric Holder as attorney general.

It is a mix of people from very different political orbits who hold divergent views on national security but all are steeped in experience.

Holder and Rice both worked in the administration of Bill Clinton, although Rice was also an early backer of Obama's candidacy.

Jones is an old friend of Obama's defeated Republican rival, Sen. John McCain -- as Marine liaison to Capitol Hill in the 1970s, he was nominally McCain's subordinate as Navy liaison -- and he appeared at least once with McCain at a campaign stop.

Gates was hired by President Bush and disagreed with Obama over the strategy of sending more troops to Iraq for the surge that helped quell much of the violence over the past year.

And Clinton famously clashed with Obama for months during their head-banging primary battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The new team will have until Jan. 20 to put their differences aside and form a cohesive team to defend the nation.

Clinton brings all the credentials and the baggage of her years as a senator and first lady in her husband's administration, as well as Bill Clinton's current globe-trotting philanthropy and fundraising.

In naming Clinton, Obama reached out to a former rival whom he'd battled with during the Democratic primaries. He used her introduction to also take a swipe at Bush's foreign policy that left many of the country's alliances strained.

"Hillary's appointment is a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances," Obama said.

Obama and Clinton clashed over various foreign policy issues during the primaries, particularly Obama's willingness to talk with foreign leaders hostile to the United States. And the Republican National Committee dug out some of its campaign research today to draw up a long list of policy issues on which Obama and Clinton have disagreed.

But today Obama dismissed efforts by the press to resurrect their criticisms of each other, telling one questioner, "I understand you're having fun."

He added, "I think she is going to be an outstanding secretary of state."

Hillary Clinton Warmed to Obama After the Primaries

In accepting the nomination, Clinton told Obama, "Thank you for this honor." She echoed Obama's theme that "America cannot solve these crises without the world, and the world cannot solve these crises without America."

She ended her comments by turning to Obama and telling him, "May God bless you."

At the close of the news conference, Obama put his arm around Clinton, and she put her arm around him, and they walked out of the room together.

A source close to Clinton said that after the primaries and while she campaigned for Obama, the bitterness of their rivalry diminished.

"She has really warmed to him. They have really warmed to each other," the source told

Clinton became a candidate for the State Department during the fall presidential race. "I think there were hints dropped along the way when she campaigned for him. ... And then there was her speech at the convention, her commitment campaigning for him that led to the offer," the Clinton source said.

Clinton, the source contended, would have little trouble advocating for Obama's positions, despite their past differences.

"Listen, they are both lawyers by training and she will represent his interests and the interests of the United States of America. There can come a time in all relationships were there are problems, but I think they are OK now," the source told ABC News.

In introducing Gates, Obama said, "I will be giving Secretary Gates and our military a new mission as soon as I take office: responsibly ending the war in Iraq through a successful transition to Iraqi control."

Obama also indicated that he would act on his campaign promise to boost troop levels in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has been steadily growing stronger.

"As Bob [Gates] said not too long ago, Afghanistan is where the war on terror began, and it is where it must end," Obama said.

Despite the apparent differences in the Obama national security team, there is also a streak of pragmatism.

Gates is known for being results oriented, nonideological and a low-key conciliator.

U.N. Post to be Elevated to Cabinet Level

"I think the fact that he is going to agree to do this, serve two presidents who are polar opposites in ideology, especially polar opposites on the war, show that he has the ability to help that along," said former GOP stragegist and now an ABC News consultant Matthew Dowd.

Jones, a retired Marine general, is the former commander of NATO forces.

"He seems to be a guy who functions well, makes the trains run on time, that gets the job done, that doesn't bully people, doesn't push people around, is not overly emotional," Dowd said.

Under Rice, the U.N. ambassador post will be elevated to a Cabinet rank as it was in President Clinton's administration, giving her a direct line to the president. Bush had downgraded the post.

ABC News' Eileen Murphy contributed to this report.

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