The campaign T-shirts are already on sale, the Washington rumour mill is in overdrive. But even if Hillary Clinton does decide to run for the White House in 2016, can she win?
Hillary Clinton, if you believe the hype, is only weeks away from girding up for her second run for president in 2016, this time going all the way to the White House. John Kerry, nominated last week as her successor as secretary of state, will be confirmed by the Senate in mid-January, leaving the coast clear for Clinton to begin preparing her battle for the presidency. And, after her successful term in Barack Obama’s administration, why shouldn’t she?
The entire Democratic establishment is urging Clinton to run – not least her husband, Bill. Die-hard fans are prepping for an announcement, with Hillary 2016 T-shirts for sale online and coy postings on the Friends of Hillary Facebook page: “Merry Christmas everyone! Hillary has a present, but she’ll only be able to give it to you in about 4 years …” And after 20 years in Washington, 2012 was the year Clinton officially became hip, with her own viral internet meme, a parody Tumblr site called Texts from Hillary.
All of which, bizarrely, could doom a potential Clinton candidacy.
For those who watched Clinton’s first run for the White House, the clamour for her to run again, the idea that there is no one more entitled than she is to the nomination and then the White House, is beginning to sound depressingly familiar.
When she launched her last bid for the White House in January 2007, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate: cautious, calculating, hawkish on defence (to the point of voting for the war in Iraq), and reactive rather than breaking new ground. The webcast announcing her presidential exploratory committee said it all – the nomination was Clinton’s for the taking. “I’m in to win,” she said in the video. But of course, she didn’t.
But Clinton has a chance, if she wants it, to show she has learned from the strategic and tactical errors of 2008. She has gained two big pluses in her four years at the State Department. The first is a cause bigger than herself, in her work for women’s rights. The second is an ability to reach out beyond a narrow circle of advisers – engaging ordinary members of the public on her frequent trips as secretary and commanding the loyalty of a large bureaucratic organisation like the State Department.
Her ultra-cautious handlers give every impression they are guarding her image for a future run for the presidency. But Clinton, for the moment, isn’t telling. She has spoken in interviews of taking time off, writing a memoir, teaching a class or engaging in philanthropic endeavours. Former aides and colleagues mention the possibility of a foundation, in tandem with her husband’s Clinton Global Initiative, or a thinktank on women and security. But it is hard to imagine Clinton willingly walking away from a public that, after all the years of flak and controversy, is now almost universally adoring.
As secretary of state she shed the political baggage accumulated as an activist first lady, and has so far avoided any blowback for the administration’s failures in the Middle East and Libya. Her domestic approval ratings are at a lifetime high, above 65%. When she goes abroad, world leaders are gushing in their praise. In September, during United Nations week, one of Clinton’s last set-piece events before standing down as secretary of state, there were standing ovations before she even got up to speak, and emotional tributes from a succession of world leaders.
At the launch of a US-backed initiative to expand women’s rights, Clinton perched in the middle of 12 red-and-gilt-arm chairs as a dozen presidents and prime ministers offered up their homages. “Hillary, you have done so much to inspire women and girls around the world,” Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, said. “We stand taller and move freer because of your inspiring example.” Clinton did not appear embarrassed. She been hearing such effusive praise for years.
So what could keep her from running? Voter fatigue with Obama and the Clintons, the economic downturn, and the security failures at Benghazi (when four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya, were killed in an attack on the US consulate in September this year) could all cause her problems. There is also the question of Clinton’s health. The secretary has not been seen in public since 10 December. Aides said she fainted and suffered concussion after being weakened by a stomach virus. And though she was quick to tell Barbara Walters in a year-end interview that she was full of “incredible stamina and energy”, Clinton will be 69 at the time of the next elections.
It would be dangerous for Clinton to take her high approval ratings for granted. The role of secretary of state operates at a remove from domestic politics; for now, Obama or house leader Nancy Pelosi are the main targets of conservative commentators. But if Clinton were to run for the White House, she would open herself up once again to a full-on attack from the right.
For now, Clinton leaves the State Department with a strong reputation – thanks in large part to the efforts of a personal staff that has been tending her image for years or even decades. A number of Clinton’s team have worked for her or her husband for most of their adult lives. The communications team, headed by Philippe Reines operates out of a ground floor office of the State Department. Staff make no secret of their mission. Fanned out on the coffee table, when I visited last autumn, were a series of magazines with flattering portraits of the secretary on their covers: Clinton gazing at the Taj Mahal on a travel publication, Clinton in a glamorous black-and-white portrait.
The secretary’s aides decided early on that when it came to repairing the US’s battered image in the world, Clinton was her country’s best asset. No previous secretary of state could match her charisma or resume: first lady, senator and, at her political height, presidential candidate who won 18m votes in the toughest, most gruelling campaign in modern US history.
“No one really quibbles with the underlying notion that, since [President Obama] took office and named her as secretary, America has greatly improved and restored its standing in the world,” said Reines. “It is not an image thing. It is not a popularity thing. It is a necessity and prerequisite to getting work done that needs to be done to advance interests and values of the United States.”
And so Clinton put herself out there, like an old-style politician using her celebrity and personal connections to try to smooth over the rough years of the US’s relations with the rest of the world. She logged 956,000 miles as secretary of state, visiting 112 countries, according to the State Department website. On virtually every visit, Clinton made a point of reaching beyond the stilted, formal diplomatic encounters to meet women’s groups, health workers, environmentalists, students, business leaders, and to spend time with US embassy staff.
This constant campaigning for America didn’t hurt Clinton’s future political prospects, either. Clinton’s team went out of their way to promote an image of Clinton, not just as the nation’s top diplomat, but its top “gal pal” – someone everyone would want to hang out with. She appeared on a comedy sketch with Australian duo Hamish & Andy. She sent in a response and posed for photos with the creators of the Tumblr parody Texts from Hillary, which featured the secretary running the world and sending badass tweets from behind dark sunglasses. She even joked about her fondness for scrunchies, the covered elastics from the 1990s she uses to pull back the longer hair she has favoured as secretary.
But those hundreds of public encounters during her years as secretary of state also helped Clinton find her way back to a lifelong cause: women’s rights. Since her days as a young lawyer, Clinton has cared passionately about the rights of women and children. But until she arrived at the State Department, she was ambivalent about defining herself publicly as a women’s advocate.
She maintained relationships with women’s organisations in Africa and Asia that lasted decades, immersing herself in issues such as sex trafficking, violence against women, female genital mutilation, child marriage and women’s exclusion from politics.
“When it really comes to the poor and women’s issues, she definitely gives it the topmost priority. She always finds time to go into the depths of it,” said Reema Nanavaty of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, who has been in touch with Clinton since 1982. “She shows more of a personal touch.”
Despite that authentic interest, however, Clinton hesitated to put women’s rights centre-stage during her earlier life in elected politics. “She didn’t want to just be seen as a woman. She wanted to be seen as the best candidate,” said Neera Tanden, who joined Clinton’s staff when she was first lady, and is now president of the leftwing Centre for American Progress think tank.
Her campaign staff were divided about how to frame Clinton as a candidate. Some feared she was missing a historic opportunity by opting to run as an institutional candidate, rather than as one representing change, a potential first female president. “There was that sense that the first woman president was within our grasp, and we were losing it,” said Patti Solis Doyle, who was removed as Clinton’s campaign manager in February 2008.
But Clinton was swayed by other advisers who warned she could put off male voters. There was also the rampant sexism of the campaigning, the dismissive commentary from TV pundits, the hecklers at campaign events calling for Clinton to iron their shirts.
Key players in her campaign now acknowledge they got it wrong. “With the benefit of hindsight, there were probably more opportunities to be taken to highlight the change a Clinton presidency would represent – as opposed to presenting her as more of an institutional figure,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster and strategist brought in to manage Clinton’s campaign during its final weeks. “I think some of the people who were running her campaign at the time were concerned about the possibility of scaring off men in the general election. But it’s clear that as a primary candidate there was, I think, a greater sense of energy and excitement that could have been generated from the historic nature of her candidacy.”
By the time Clinton came around to embracing the idea of change, it was far too late.
At the State Department, however, with no immediate political stakes, Clinton felt freer to put women and children at the centre of policy-making. “Hillary came in to the office as an international superstar. I think she could afford to take a little bit more risk on that front,” said Isobel Coleman, director of the women and foreign policy programme at the Council on Foreign Relations. There were still elements of the old political calculation, reminders that Clinton was still keeping options open for 2016. She disappointed activists on her trip to Ireland earlier this month, possibly her last as secretary, when she failed to publicly take up the case of Savita Halappanavar, who died after being refused an abortion.
But Clinton’s allies argue her advocacy on women’s issues has made a profound difference. “When a secretary of state goes to a country and the embassy gets engaged in those issues again and again and again, I think that is the way you begin to change the mindset,” said Alyse Nelson, who runs the Vital Voices group fostered by Clinton when she was first lady. “Hillary took it to a whole new level.”
When Clinton took the job as secretary of state four years ago, she could have messed up. After all, in the single most important foreign policy vote of her time in the Senate, the decision to invade Iraq, Clinton picked the wrong side, voting for war. There were also concerns about her capacity to work with her former rival Obama. “When she came in she had a very tough political task,” said David Rothkopf, chief executive of Foreign Policy magazine. “She was seen as a rival to the president. She had her own political base. She could easily be seen as someone upstaging him, but that didn’t happen. She put her head down and she got to work.”
In 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a flawed candidate. Has she done enough to address those flaws and make it to the White House in 2016? Only time will tell.
• This article was amended on 29 December 2012. The photo caption of Hillary Clinton with her family mistakenly stated it was taken in 1972. This has been corrected.
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