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A burning question: What’s next for Hillary Clinton?

9 min

As she prepares to step down after four years as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton says she won’t run for president in 2016. But insight from sources close to her, a look at the US political landscape, and recent clues tell a different story.


Of the questions swirling around Washington DC these days -- Can a fiscal cliff deal be reached? Should the administration do more about Syria? Which designer will the first lady wear to the inaugural ball? -- perhaps none is as obsessively pondered as: What will Hillary Clinton do next?

According to whisperings from her inner circle, the secretary of state, who is expected to step down in the next few months, may buy a country house in the Hamptons or upstate New York with her husband, former President Bill Clinton. The 65-year-old Clinton herself told The New York Times that her plans were “to sleep and exercise and travel for fun”. And it seems a given that she will do high-profile speaking engagements and write a book about her time as America’s top diplomat.

What people really want to know, of course, is whether Clinton will run for president in 2016, in a final bid to break through the “glass ceiling” and become America’s first female commander-in-chief.

Her answers have, for the most part, been categorically negative.

But Clinton’s latest comment to The New York Times -- “I’ve ruled it out, but you know me” -- struck a more ambiguous note than usual. And insight from sources close to her, as well as a glance at the current political landscape and a few recent clues, suggests that another presidential candidacy remains, at the very least, a strong possibility.

Soaring popularity and serious fatigue

“The people she relies on have been told to take a few months off in the new year and then regroup in the spring to discuss it with her,” said a State Department official who wished to remain anonymous. “Right now, she’s very, very tired.”

Indeed, Clinton has visited more countries, endured more days of travelling, and racked up more air miles than any secretary of state in US history.

In the meantime, she has emerged as one of the country’s most beloved political figures, with soaring approval ratings (around 65%) and polls showing her crushing other potential Democratic presidential contenders in a hypothetical primary.

Armed with the experience of eight years as a policy-oriented first lady, another eight as US senator, one long and hard-fought presidential primary campaign, and four years at the head of the State Department, Clinton would be one of the most highly qualified White House hopefuls in recent history.

Peter Mandaville
Peter Mandaville

What she needs to figure out, according to Peter Mandaville, a political scientist at George Mason University who until recently served as a policy advisor to Clinton at the State Department, is “whether she has the mental strength, commitment and stamina not just to go through a campaign, but also to possibly run the country for eight years”.

Mandaville added that alternative options include working at the Clinton Global Initiative (a project founded by her husband to address problems like poverty and climate change) or launching her own organisation with the mission of empowering women around the world.

Clues point to campaign mode

Many have pointed to signs that Clinton has already decided to run, but is not yet ready to talk about it. Earlier this month, David Remnick, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, wrote a piece entitled “Hillary is Running”, in which he described a Middle East forum in Washington as proof of Clinton’s presidential intentions. First a short film was shown featuring world leaders touting her accomplishments and attributes -- “like an international endorsement four years in advance”, Remnick wrote. Then, Clinton took to the stage and proceeded to deliver “a serious, sturdy speech of a certain kind”, full of robust praise for the US-Israeli alliance and “extremely careful not to ruffle anyone’s delicate feelings”.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd contended that Clinton’s staunchly pro-Israel speech was particularly revealing, because it came on the heels of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to defy the White House by pursuing new settlements east of Jerusalem.

“Many there came away assuming that it was the beginning of Hillary’s 2016 campaign, that she was thinking about her future rather than her present,” Dowd wrote. “Her reasoning, they reckoned, was….why should she stir up trouble with Israel and her pro-Israel supporters on her way out the door?”

To back up her hypothesis, Dowd also noted that Clinton recently “took steps to solidify her relationships with some Democrats” by sending Congressional candidates who lost their races on November 6 “hand-signed” letters of encouragement. “Far from being depleted and ready for a spa, she’s energetically rounding up the usual suspects,” Dowd concluded.

One high-level staffer on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, who wished to remain anonymous, said that Bill Clinton’s impassioned stumping for Obama before the November election was yet another clue. “Bill went all out for Obama so that Hillary would be well-positioned for 2016,” said the aide. “Being a good surrogate for Obama and good team players in general keeps the Clintons relevant and skyrockets their popularity in the party.”

‘She will be impossible to beat’

For the moment, their efforts have paid off. “The consensus is that if she wants the nomination, it’s hers,” Mandaville said. “Other contenders would likely defer to her -- even if with Joe Biden, the calculus is a little more complicated, since he’s vice president.”

Clinton is the rare politician whose appeal has, to a certain degree, crossed party lines; top Republicans like Senator John McCain regularly sing her praises, and a Gallup survey found that even 40% of Republican voters have a positive opinion of her.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia under Creative Commons license
Photo Credit: Wikimedia under Creative Commons license

Clinton was not always so well-liked. In the 90s, she was a polarising figure, loathed in particular by Republicans and dogged by a certain image as, in Mandaville’s words, “this relentless, Machiavellian person who only cared about her own career”. But, Mandaville emphasised, that was before people saw her at work. “Her conduct in public life, the loyalty and professionalism with which she has served Obama, and her unique skill as a policy maker have put an end to most of that negative commentary,” he said.

Clinton’s clout is such that conservatives are already predicting defeat if she ends up running. In a recent TV interview, former presidential candidate and House leader Newt Gingrich said: “If [the Democrats’] competitor in 2016 is going to be Hillary Clinton, supported by Bill Clinton and, presumably, a still relatively popular President Barack Obama, trying to win that will be truly the Super Bowl.”

Right-leaning political scientist John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Centre, a Washington DC think tank, agrees. “If she is this popular in 2016 and the economy is like it is today -- something of a neutral factor, not so great, but not so bad in terms of growth -- she will be nearly impossible to beat for the nomination or in the general election,” Fortier said. “In theory, Republicans could put up a super-candidate who could rival her, but they won’t have one.”

‘Haunted by 2008’

This is not the first time Clinton has been described as a shoo-in, and some have hinted that her loss against Obama in 2008 -- along with the highly publicised chaos that plagued her campaign -- has left her wary of launching another presidential bid. “How could she not be haunted by 2008?” Mandaville said. “Her decision will involve a lot of analysis of the factors that played into that outcome.”

On November 13, The Buffalo News, the main daily newspaper of Buffalo, New York, published an editorial calling on Democrats to rally around Hillary Clinton as their 2016 nominee for president.

“We’ve barely finished a bruising, expensive campaign for president, but it’s not too early to be thinking about who would make an excellent candidate for the presidency in 2016 – particularly if there is a conspicuously capable individual already on the political scene,” the editorial read. “There is such a candidate, and it should surprise no one that her name is Hillary Clinton.”

When it comes down to it, though, most believe that if the Democrats need her in order to win the White House, Clinton will be there. “Pressure from the party will be a strong factor,” Mandaville noted, pointing to her joining Obama’s cabinet after he defeated her as evidence of her deep sense of duty.

One of the more cautious assessments of a Clinton presidential run has come from Nate Silver, The New York Times’ polling expert, who argues that while she is a "formidable contender", she would not be as invulnerable as she looks now. Clinton’s popularity spikes when she removes herself from the partisan fray, Silver notes, as she did during her tenure as secretary of state and in conceding the Democratic primary to Obama – or when she appears vulnerable, as in the role of jilted wife during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But when her ambition is most on display, as it was when she fought for healthcare reform as first lady, ran for her New York senate seat, or battled Obama for the Democratic nomination, Clinton becomes a more divisive figure.

In other words, if Clinton jumps into the 2016 presidential race, she will once again be criticised -- “delicately at first,” Silver writes, “and then more expressly as the election [draws] nearer”.

Still, Silver’s analysis comes with a caveat for anyone who doubts the strength of a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016: “Perhaps Mrs. Clinton’s most impressive attribute is her ability to withstand criticism -- and often emerge the stronger from it.”

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