Hillary strains at the leash

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Now that President Clinton is free of the burden of re-election, one of the questions intriguing Washington is whether he will finally let his wife out of the White House attic.

Politically sterilised over the past two years, after the polls and the focus groups showed the electorate preferred a passive First Lady, Hillary Clinton has suggested in an interview with Time magazine that she may play a "formal" role in shaping US welfare policy.

"I intend to speak out about welfare reform," she says in this week's issue of Time. "If there's a formal role that would make sense in terms of reporting to the President," she added.

That is exactly the role played by Mrs Clinton's heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt, whose one consolation during a troubled marriage was her husband's readiness to shape policy on the strength of her observations on the plight of America's poor.

Mrs Clinton has made no secret of her desire to emulate Mrs Roosevelt, but when President Clinton signed a Bill in the summer ending Franklin D Roosevelt's 60-year legacy of guaranteed government aid to poor American families, Mrs Clinton stood by her man. She bit her tongue and stuck loyally to the script demanded by Mr Clinton's re-election strategists.

For the accepted wisdom among Washington's electoral professionals was that Mr Clinton would lose in 1996 if he were still perceived as the hen-pecked husband. The hint in the Time interview suggested a woman who feels she has played the doting spouse for too long and is straining to break free.

Mike McCurry, chief White House spokesman, maintained: "I'm not aware that there is any formal role planned for the First Lady." But it could be that allowing Mrs Clinton to be herself - intelligent, active, socially concerned - is a "damage" the President no longer feels necessary to control.