That ambitious foreign-policy agenda, meanwhile, has inevitably collided with reality; long since jettisoned are many of the early ideas about reshaping the world for the Obama era, from talking directly to Iran's ayatollahs to forging a durable Mideast peace built on an American-led push to end Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Instead, Obama has become an unlikely tough guy as he campaigns for reelection, touting his decision to launch the risky special-ops raid that killed Osama bin Laden (Clinton agreed) as well as his moves to draw down the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan (Clinton along with then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued in favor of Obama's 2009 Afghanistan troop surge). Both Obama and Clinton have been quick to note that they are playing the hand Bush dealt them, focused by necessity on winding down the last decade's wars -- as well as by a new economic age when America's unchallenged post-Cold War hegemony no longer seems a given.
Even the Arab Spring, the most dramatic rescrambling of the world order on their watch, has produced few opportunities for American leadership -- not to mention a confused, ambiguous series of outcomes, with fallen dictators in Egypt and Libya but also a bloody stalemate in Syria and the rise of unpredictable and often virulently anti-American Islamist political leaders across the region. "It's not like the reunification of Germany or democratic elections in the Czech Republic," said Jake Sullivan, Clinton's policy-planning chief. "It's going to be much more complicated and difficult than that over time. And so, the downside of that if you're secretary of state is that you're not going to get feathers in your hat for these kinds of things in the same way.… Outcomes are a lot less determinate and will play out against a much longer period of time."
That leaves Clinton to promote a list of accomplishments that are somewhat short of transformative if still substantial, from the extensive personal diplomacy she poured into mobilizing the NATO coalition that launched airstrikes to topple Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi to her advocacy of a strategic U.S. "pivot" to Asia and away from the conflicts of the Middle East -- announced by Clinton in an article in Foreign Policy last fall.
More broadly if less tangibly, she has put new emphasis at a time of global financial crisis on the role of what she calls "economic statecraft," including appointing the State Department's first chief economist; launched a major reboot of American development efforts modeled on the Pentagon's quadrennial strategic reviews; and touted the need for an "Internet freedom" agenda that would mobilize new technology on behalf of democracy activists and dissidents the world over, an agenda that has seemed both problematic -- bad guys have these tools too -- and prescient in anticipating the technology-fueled protests that swept the Middle East during last year's Arab Spring.
Then there's managing her inbox, where never a day goes by without some new global headache being added to the mix, a headache that will inevitably require a Clinton phone call or meeting or even being told by Obama to fly halfway around the world after just having gotten off a plane. "You have to be a little bit of an incrementalist in these jobs," a top State Department official told me. "You have to define what success means. It doesn't always mean that you're going to necessarily get a peace agreement in the Middle East, but it is getting the Jordanians in the middle of a discussion with the Palestinians and the Israelis about what the future looks like.… So if you're a get-stuff-done person, which she is, you have to calibrate. Because you can't just wave your magic wand and things just happen."
Asked how she approaches the job, Clinton often replies by saying she has to do it all; she has to watch, as she puts it, "the headlines and the trend lines." But she's nothing if not the pragmatist ("She doesn't tilt at windmills," said Anne-Marie Slaughter, her first policy-planning chief) -- and what often matters most in American politics is the crisis right in front of you. "You have to keep your eye on those long-term dangers," she told me, "but you've got to deal with the here and now too, every day."
THAT'S WHERE CHEN ENTERS the story, as a walk-in to that already overflowing inbox. On the morning of Thursday, April 26, the call came into the U.S. Embassy in Beijing: Chen had made a near-miraculous escape from village house arrest some 350 miles away. But now he was injured, with a broken foot and unspecified other medical problems. Would the Americans come rescue him?