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.
The important aspect of Bill Clinton’s performance during the campaign was that he built up an extensive list of IOUs from Democrats — including the number one Democrat Barack Obama. This will certainly play into Hillary’s musings as she contemplates a run in 2016.
But despite the large upside to running for president that she sees, there are also compelling reasons why Hillary Clinton may eschew a run for office that also make sense and could eventually sway her decision.
What will the Democratic brand be like by 2015? If the economy plunges into another recession, the GOP may be blamed initially, but no one can predict what the political landscape might look like in a few years. Then there is the implementation of Obamacare, which is going to cause massive confusion and unhappiness among the electorate. The Democrats will not be able to blame Republicans for writing bad legislation, and the resulting chaos might poison the well for any Democratic candidate in 2016.
There is the possibility that other, more liberal candidates might emerge that would excite the party base and throw a monkey wrench into her plans — as Obama did in 2008. That would be a nightmare scenario for Hillary, and before making the plunge, she may consider who else would throw their hat in the ring. Would Andrew Cuomo be a serious rival? The New York governor currently enjoys sky-high approval ratings and is being seriously mentioned as a potential candidate. Protecting her left flank might be a priority for Clinton if she wants to make a run.
Finally, Hillary Clinton has the same problem that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has — her name. How reluctant is the electorate to revisit the acrimony and political battles of the Bush-Clinton era? By 2016, there would have been only one election in 24 years without a Bush or Clinton running for president. The impact on the party faithful as well as the general electorate would be a wild card that she may decide would be too costly to play.
Obviously, there are other variables she will have to consider; her health and the health of her husband would be one. Other personal issues may prevent her from running. But whatever she decides, Hillary Clinton is not going to fade away like an old soldier. You can bet she will maintain her position as a force in Democratic politics — and the politics of the nation — for many years to come.