Hillary Clinton steps down... but can she ever step up?

The biggest job of all still beckons for an outgoing Secretary of State who gets more popular with age

Washington

It's when you enter office that there's supposed to be a sense of anticipation – not when you leave it. Not for the first time in her prolific and extraordinarily varied career, however, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the exception to the rule.

Within a few weeks she will be stepping down as Secretary of State, a job that by general consent she has filled with huge energy and much distinction. At the age of 65, that would normally be it for someone with three decades of public service under her belt, capped by four years in the most senior and prestigious cabinet job. An untaxing but lucrative future on the speaking circuit and in private sector consultancy would seem just reward. But not so in the case of Ms Clinton. Only one question prevails: will she run in 2016 for the biggest job of all?

F Scott Fitzgerald once famously (and mistakenly) wrote there are no second acts in American lives. Ms Clinton is now wrapping up what is at least act five. There was the hot-shot Little Rock lawyer and governor's wife who turned $100,000 profit on a cattle futures trade. Then came eight years as a less-than-universally popular First Lady, remembered for her hubristic and failed attempt to reform healthcare, her dignity in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and her general reluctance to "stay at home and bake cookies", the political spouse's role with which Americans are most comfortable.

In her next act she re-invented herself as US Senator for New York between 2001 and 2009. On Capitol Hill she displayed not only her command of the issues, but a modesty and an ability to work with colleagues, even on the other side of the aisle. Within the constraints of the most clubbish and hierarchical institution in government, she carved out a truly separate political identity from her husband, paving the way for her first presidential run.

That venture ended unsuccessfully, in part thanks to her mistakes and a ponderous campaign organisation, but above all because a young Barack Obama managed to place her on the wrong side of history. Nonetheless, within six months of her defeat in the primaries she was her erstwhile rival's nominee as Secretary of State.

And as America's top diplomat, and global face of her country second only to the President himself, she has flourished. The woman who once was seen as scheming and over-ambitious leaves government as its most popular figure, with a recent approval rating close to 70 per cent. That she has been able to stay out from the demeaning partisan fray in Washington, visiting more countries than any of her predecessors, has helped. So too has her manifest competence and her lawyer's ability to master a brief.

Even so, the praise lavished upon her can seem at first glance odd. No stand-out achievement marks her tenure. There is no headline-making "Clinton Doctrine". She did not resolve the Syrian crisis or bring about an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The attempted "reset" in US relations with Russia has fizzled, while her tenure is ending beneath the shadow of the September 11 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, in which four Americans, including the US ambassador, died.

That security failure could prevent the woman who is otherwise favourite to replace Ms Clinton – UN ambassador Susan Rice – from taking the role, as Republicans yesterday declared they still believed she misled the public after Ms Rice conceded she had initially offered a partly inaccurate account of the incident.

Part of Ms Clinton's success has been personal: her grace and lack of rancour in defeat, her loyalty as Secretary of State, working smoothly with the man who beat her in the fiercest primary battle in American history. She has also established a good relationship with the Pentagon, to the benefit of all parties. Above all, perhaps, she has added a new focus to US diplomacy. The Middle East, the war on terror, Iran, China, Russia and the rest perforce dominate day-to-day policy making.

But there is a new Clinton-inspired emphasis on underlying themes, ever more important in an interconnected world – poverty and human (not least women's) rights, development and environmental issues, and the encouragement of democracy in forgotten corners of the world that have usually enjoyed precious little of it.

"A walking NGO," Bill Clinton described his wife as he introduced her at a recent session of the Clinton Global Initiative, a Secretary of State who "tries to make good things happen". Those words undoubtedly reflect a husband's pride and affection. But they do not alter the question that, failing an absolutely unequivocal response, will hang heavier than any other over American politics for the next couple of years: will she or won't she run in 2016?

On the face of things, the answer tilts towards a no. Four years in which she has spent 395 days on the road and visited 112 countries (as of yesterday) have visibly exhausted her. She says that after a rest, she would like to devote herself to writing, teaching and other good works. But she has not issued any door-closing, Shermanesque, denial. And in the absence of one, the pressure on Hillary to try anew to become America's first female president can only grow.

Yes, she will be 69 come election day 2016, but American political life expectancy, like human life expectancy, continues to grow. And the omens for a Democrat four years hence are good. The Republicans are in ideological disarray, while the economy is picking up steam, favouring the party in office.

And as a candidate, Hillary Clinton has the lot. She is popular. She has a ready-made organisation, the most enduring machine in Democratic politics, at her disposal. Her name recognition must near 100 per cent, and her fundraising ability is stratospheric. Then there is the intangible extra of the Clinton family brand, and a husband who is perhaps the only American public figure currently more popular than herself. True, most of these conditions also applied in 2008, but a Barack Obama is a once-in-a-generation figure, if that. And if Hillary's career has proved anything, it is that she can learn from her mistakes.

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