She is, as the New York Times describes her, “one of the most famous women on earth.” She inspires both abject disgust and hero-worship from friend and foe. She is one half of a political man-and-wife team that could be considered the most successful — and controversial — in American history. (John and Abigail Adams are their only real rivals.)
Despite the early date on the political calendar, the speculation about her presidential ambition and plans for 2016 has barely paused since her bitterly disappointing loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. And it is only going to grow over the next several months as Mrs. Clinton leaves the State Department and embarks on the next stage of what any objective observer would have to conclude is a remarkable life.
Right now, aides and friends say, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plan looks like this: exit the State Department shortly after Inauguration Day and then seclude herself to rest and reflect on what she wants to do for the next few years. Those who have invited her for 2013 engagements have been told not to even ask again until April or May.
She is likely to use her husband’s foundation as at least a temporary perch, several former aides said, and she has been considering a new book — not a painful examination of her failed 2008 presidential bid, as she once proposed, but a more upbeat look at her time as secretary of state.
For the moment, Mrs. Clinton may appear to be a figure of nearly limitless possibility, and her name has come up for prestigious jobs: president of Yale University, head of George Soros’s foundation. But being Hillary Clinton is never a simple matter, and her next few years are less a blank check than an equation with multiple variables. Her status is singular but complicated: half an ex-presidential partnership, a woman at the peak of her influence who will soon find herself without portfolio, and an instant presidential front-runner (a title that did not work out well last time).
Mrs. Clinton may find that her freedom comes with one huge constraint. The more serious she is about 2016, the less she can do — no frank, seen-it-all memoir; no clients, commissions or controversial positions that could prove problematic. She will be under heavy scrutiny even by Clinton standards, discovering what it means to be a supposedly private citizen in the age of Twitter. With the election four years away — a political eon — she will have to tend and protect her popularity, and she may find herself in a cushy kind of limbo, unable to make many decisions about her life until she makes the big one about another White House try.
And it isn’t only Hillary who would have to mind her Ps and Qs. Her restless, garrulous husband would have to cool it as well. The self-proclaimed buy-one-get-one-free Clinton brand is enmeshed in both their public personas and it may not be possible to separate them in the public’s mind.
And that brings up another problem: how to separate herself sufficiently from Bill’s larger-than-life personality? During Hillary’s tenure as secretary of State, Bill has lurked quietly in the background these last four years, venturing out occasionally, his public statements measured and even modest. He has chosen international forums for the most part — until he committed himself to playing a large role in President Obama’s re-election campaign.
Clinton partisans have made the argument that Bill’s rousing speech at the Democratic convention was a big difference in the campaign. One should probably let history decide that, but there is no doubt that “The Speech” fueled an excitement in the Obama campaign that until that point had been sorely lacking. His appearances on the president’s behalf usually made an impact and his joint appearances with Obama raised gobs of money for the campaign and for the party.