Matthew Norman: Hillary's time may yet come

Could Barack Obama conclude that an old enemy is better placed to safeguard America from Republican madness, and walk away with dignity, as well as relief?

Will he stay or will he go? Will he hang around to fight another day, from a sense of duty as much as ambition? Or will he, with a helpful shove from a missus palpably distraught and livid at his maltreatment, limp off to teach or write books?

We will find out before too long, although not today, whether the black David Miliband (throw a cup of flour in Obama's face and the two could almost be – whisper the word in Manchester – brothers) has the stomach to run for a second term. But either way, this possibility is edging from the zanier end of the blogospheric spectrum towards the mainstream: Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, could be the next Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States.

Shielded from the attacks on an administration in strife if not yet crisis (potty-mouthed chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel is expected to be the first rodent to jump ship, possibly this week), Hillary bides her time with unwonted quietude. She insists she has no intention of running for president in 2012, and who would doubt her word? Yet what she sees as she looks down on Obama from the safety of her crow's nest at the Department of State must delight and excite her.

The President is in trouble, and time is running out. The once anticpated sharp upturn in the economic cycle shows no sign of arriving as middle-class poverty deepens, and the jobless rate stubbornly hovers at just below 10 per cent. How incalculably bleaker the economy would be but for Obama's stimulus plan is irrelevant, what with the electorate's strange reluctance to vote according to alternative timelines.

His approval ratings are marooned in the low 40s, and will probably sink further when November's mid-term elections add lame-duckery to his other woes by giving the Republicans control of the House of Representatives. The first President Clinton recovered from similarly low figures and a viciously obstructive-aggressive Congress, it's true, to win well in 1996. But he was Bill Clinton, with all the resilience and genius for empathy to go with a benign economy, and Obama clearly is not. If by next summer his position has not improved, let alone worsened, even Hillary's instinctive loyalty will struggle to subdue the temptation to challenge the incumbent, just as Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter – increasingly cited as the Obama template – on unelectability grounds.

For Hillary, who will be 65 at the next election, courteously postponing her second crack at the White House until she is pushing 70 seems unlikely if she sniffs blood. She is America's most popular politician by light years, with approval ratings in the mid-60s, and the first Hillary For 2012 commercial ran on local Chicago television last week. "She has more experience working in and with the White House than most living presidents," this advert ran. "She is one of the most admired women in our nation's history. Let's make sure the president we should have elected in 2008 will be on the ballot in 2012."

It was placed by dentist William DeJean, the second root canal-botherer publicly to discourage Obama's occupancy of the Oval Office. The first was the self-appointed Queen of the Birthers who appeared on CNN above the wondrous caption: "Dr Orly Taitz: CA Attorney, Dentist, Real Estate Broker."

Since supplanted and doubtless subsumed by the Tea Party, the Birthers are fondly remembered as the advance troops in the surge of American racism given more recent expression by the almost burning of the Koran in Florida and the odious canard about the Ground Zero mosque. This inability of a deafening minority of Americans to accept the legitimacy of a black president evidently shocks Obama, and perhaps even more so Michelle.

Only last week, both the White House and Carla Bruni were forced to deny that the First Lady, as quoted in a Madame Sarkozy biography, confided to her that life in the White House is "hell", and that she "can't stand it". The quote, although quite possibly invented, has the clearest ring of psychological truth. It must be infernal torture to hear her husband being talked about "like a dog", as he put it a while ago, by the beauties of Fox News and the 18 per cent of compatriots who believe their president to be a Muslim sleeper.

If Michelle has had enough, who would blame her for pressuring him to avoid an attritional rematch with Hillary that would weaken him dreadfully (as his against Kennedy weakened Carter) even if, as would be far from certain, he won? If he is exhausted not merely by the justified criticism of his diffident, disengaged tone, but by the unceasing persecution for the economic calamity that was George W Bush's most lustrous domestic legacy, for being temperamentally unsuited to Bill's "Ah feel your pain" empathy, and for being black, who could blame him for deciding the game isn't worth the candle?

When his campaign manager David Plouffe said a while ago that Obama wasn't concerned with re-election, this was dismissed as cynical posturing. So was Obama's own earlier remark about preferring to be an important one-term president than a two-term nothing. But this is not a cynical man, or an insensitive one.

If there was always a brittleness (by Clintonian standards) about Barack Obama, you'd hardly need to be a major league jesse to wilt under attacks, from all quarters, of a relentlessness, ferocity and often plain vileness that no previous president has had to endure.

It would take a giant politician to tough this out and recover to win. Obama, for all his tonal failings, is one of those. But perhaps it requires an even more gigantic one to conclude that an old enemy is better placed to safeguard America from Republican madness, and walk away with dignity as well as relief.

The odds remain that Barack Obama will do no such thing, and will run again, and win. But they are lengthening by the week, and when I wrote in January that even money about his reelection looked like the bet of the century, I was clearly misquoted. Today it is the 37-1 on Betfair against a second President Clinton that may be one of the bets of all time.