Hillary Clinton spoke recently on bubbles and public life. Asked about emails sent by her longtime confidant and Clinton Foundation employee Sidney Blumenthal, the candidate said that she communicated with old friends to keep balance as secretary of state. “I think you do have to work to make sure you’re not caught in a bubble and you only hear from a certain small group of people. And I’m going to keep talking to my old friends, whoever they are.”
Clinton is right: Leaders need people to give them honest advice, and those people are often not in government. But that’s not the only kind of bubble that leaders encounter when they surround themselves with friends and highly loyal confidants. The other kind of bubble is a shield. Outside sources are the ones who become the “small group of people” who block a president off from reality.
A president can’t survive without a protective bubble. The job grinds you down. President Obama says he had to come to accept that there is both the Barack Obama who he recognizes in the mirror each morning and the “Barack Obama” who is the public figure who is attacked and used for public consumption and debate. A bubble of confidants helps maintain that healthy distinction, and when a president loses it, the hope is that they will pull him back. Or, when the importance of the office encourages pride or arrogance, a friend is the fastest way to ground a leader by reminding him of the initial values he once held.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work. It often doesn’t. Instead of protecting leaders from the excessive demands of the job, old friends and confidants collude with the leader in creating a bubble that leads to self-anesthetization. They act as enablers, encouraging a leader’s weakest instincts and protecting him from honest feedback. They create systems that free a leader from some of the basic interactions and abrasions of daily governing. The problem is that those abrasions are often called “the rules,” set up to protect the public interest from just the kind of bubble that encourages leaders to do their own thing. In those cases, the rules act as the piercing mechanism, presumably forcing the bubble to open, which guards against self-dealing and insulation.
That is the challenge the Clinton team faces on issues such as Hillary’s private email server. Setting it up was an end run around the rules, and it was facilitated by keepers of the bubble in the service of maintaining the bubble. (It was set up before Hillary Clinton was an official member of the cabinet.) As Laura Meckler writes in the Wall Street Journal, when Clinton was at the State Department, aides scrutinized and sometimes blocked the release of documents requested under public-records law. When email records retained under the private server had to be turned over, the bubble kicked in again. Clinton didn’t wipe her server herself, and she didn’t go through all 60,000 emails making determinations about which ones to keep and which ones to discard. Her team—what in an earlier time might have been called the palace guard—facilitated this.
Voters may or may not care about this kind of bubble. But whether it is a political challenge or not, it’s certainly a governing one. A bubble that has been in place for so long and acts instinctively to minimize threats can wall off a president and encourage groupthink. In the most extreme cases a single mentality takes over. That leads to a shrinking of options, because the voices from the inside of the bubble rise higher in the conversation because of their longtime association with the principal. That is the charge in the case of Blumenthal’s emails, whose ideas about Libya were sent through the State Department bureaucracy by Secretary Clinton. The other complexity with the Blumenthal correspondence is that he was reportedly advising a group of entrepreneurs trying to win business from the Libyan transitional government. In the wrong kind of bubble, that kind of conflict is allowed or isn’t even noticed.
Clinton said the Blumenthal emails were providing her with another viewpoint outside of the bureaucracy. Or those emails might have been appealing because they represented the familiar and comforting ideas that emanate from an internal echo chamber. For a candidate who has had to maintain and rely on a close ring of associates to help her manage public life for more than 20 years, Hillary Clinton faces more bubbles than perhaps anyone who has run for president before.