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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf