Jacob Heilbrunn

Will Hillary Run In 2016—Or Will Obama?

The Hillary camp is getting active again. The secretary of state will step down in January 2013, whether or not President Obama wins reelection. But as a listing economy renders Obama's chances increasingly iffy for 2012, leading Democrats are starting to look in a different direction as they plan for the future. Indeed, a mini-Hillary boomlet is developing for 2016.

As the Washington Post notes, Hillary's backers are getting rather frisky about her prospects. Her champions include House minority leader Nanci Pelosi—"she's our shot"—former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell—"the challenges facing the country will be too great for her to resist and she will change her mind"—and Bill Clinton himself—"I just think she needs to rest up, do some things she cares about, and whatever she decides to do, I'll support." There can be no doubting that Clinton's position would be a lot stronger in 2016. She's proven herself to be a tough secretary of state. And she has service as a New York senator under her belt. With her sunglasses and tough moxie, Clinton has begun to command new respect at home as well as abroad.

But what about vice president Joseph Biden? He, too, is sometimes rumored to view himself as presidential timber. But if Hillary ran, he would probably not be the presumptive favorite. She's managed to lock down two big Democratic constituencies, the white working-class vote and women. Biden, who has a penchant for planting his foot in his mouth, might find campaigning against Hillary rough going. They could conduct a running war about who had it right during the Obama administration. The person who would really be seeking vindication is Bill Clinton.

Recall that his reputation took a beating during the 2008 election when he cast slurs against Obama and was mystified by his popular appeal. Bill's true redemption can only occur if he fulfills the compact that he apparently made with Hillary: turning her into a president. Whether Hillary still wants the job is an open question, but maybe on second thought it's not that questionable. The Clintons don't desire the presidency; they lust for it. This would be their last chance. It would allow Slick Willy to test his slickness one last time, to see if he can come out like an aging baseball pitcher and command the mound in a final effort to push his team over the top.

But there could be a third veteran from the Obama administration running in 2016: Barack Obama. If Obama loses to Mitt Romney in 2012, he could seek a rematch in 2016. He would have had ample time to reflect upon his deficiencies—chief among them his aloofness—and try to correct them. If Obama were to defeat Romney in 2016, this would truly be a sign of a perfectly polarized electorate. All along, voters have been turning elections into the equivalent of an almost perfectly balanced political see-saw.

Would Obama seek to test his popularity in 2016, to make a comeback after being repudiated by the nation in 2012? Would Mitt Romney be a popular president, or would he have made such a hash of things that a new phenomenon called Obama nostalgia emerged in 2016? Perhaps the best thing that could happen to Obama might be to lose this election and plan for a comeback. He and Hillary could once more battle it out, just as they did during the primaries in 2008, with each claiming greater experience. To give it even more of a back-to-the-future feel, perhaps the disgraced John Edwards, who sought the nod in 2008 before his campaign imploded, might rejoin the fray as well to seek his own very personal redemption. If Obama succeeded in winning the nomination and general election, he could comfort himself on earning a big distinction. He could become the Grover Cleveland of our era.

Image: Obama-Biden Transition Project