Witness to Power
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She has been there, standing in that shadow between the idea and the reality, between a candidate winning the campaign and leading the free world.
“You do not quite believe it. You think, is this guy really going to be president of the United States? You think, am I really going to be in this position of power? We all grow up thinking that there is a ‘they’ who run things and work on these big problems. It is a very strange feeling to realize one day that ‘they’ is you.”’
Nancy Soderberg was part of Bill Clinton’s transition team in 1992, when he went from a semi-obscure governor to president. She was the transition team’s point person on foreign policy.
Her parents are Lars and Nancy, former summer residents who have become part of the island community.
It seemed like a good time to get on the phone with her, as Barak Obama prepares to be the next man to sit behind the desk at the oval office.
“The day after the election the whole world starts calling,” she said. “Europe, South Africa, Haiti, whatever the crisis of the day is.”
It is a very American thing, this transition of power and the idea of a president-elect waiting in the wings for more than two months to take over. Obama, of course, is not yet the president. We only have one president at a time, and until Jan. 20 that man is George W. Bush.
“Obama really cannot get involved in problems yet,” said Soderberg. “it is all about taking phone calls and sending out a strong message right now. The most important thing is to get his team in place. If you make a mistake on your inner circle, it hurts your agenda.”
Clinton made a mistake like that. He chose a Wisconsin congressman named Les Aspen as his Secretary of Defense and he did not work out. After the “Blackhawk Down” affair in Somalia he was forced to step down.
“Obama can’t afford that sort of thing happening with the country in the middle of a war,” she said. “But he ran an incredibly disciplined campaign and he is running the transition the same way.”
Soderberg said that getting a handle on our current economic crisis will be his first foreign policy challenge.
“He needs to send the world the message that he is on top of it, that he is surrounding himself with the best economic minds available, and that he can lead us out of it,” she said. “Without getting our economic house in order, he will never get ahead of foreign-policy issues.”
Those issues include winding down the war in Iraq and getting American troops out. Soderberg is not a fan of timetables, saying they lean toward politics and not toward military strategy. And that is not to mention the war in Afghanistan, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the increasingly aggressive leadership in Russia.
“It is clear that Russia is moving toward a more centrally-controlled autocratic state,” said Soderberg, who after working in the Clinton Administration worked for the International Crisis Group. “They are flexing their muscles and looking to take a more powerful regional role. We ignored them for much of the last eight years.”
What happened over those last eight years, she said, will make successful foreign policy more difficult.
“There has been unprecedented spikes in anti-American feelings since 2003. Who today would build a Statue of Liberty like the students did during the Tiananmen Square protests? We need to get back on the path where people will follow us, where we can inspire. The good news is the world is hungry for that kind of leadership.”
These days you can find Soderberg teaching at a small college in Florida, the sort of place where kids from working-class families work the night shift so they can pay for classes. She opens their horizons to the possibility of working in Washington, D.C.
“It is an awe-inspiring feeling,” she said about her own days in Washington. “I don’t care who you are, the shift from the private sector to having the full power of the United States government behind you is dramatic.”
“The strangest thing is when it all becomes normal. You are in that 24-hour bubble, in the motorcade and flying around in Air Force One. It is almost inevitable that people get arrogant. You begin to forget it’s the office and not you. It is tough to walk away from that, but it really gets to be that the healthiest thing you can do is walk away.”
She gets her politics fix these days locally, a level she has never played on before, working on a Democratic County Committee in Florida. It is a long way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but politics is politics.
“Local politics can be fascinating, she said with a laugh. “Plus, this is Florida. They play mean down here.”
– John Stanton