Hillary Clinton’s future has been a subject of renewed interest in Washington in the past week or two. Some are advising Barack Obama to ditch Joe Biden as vice-president and put the secretary of state on the ticket for the presidential election in 2012. Commentators are enchanted. Issues of substance and tactics are being pored over delightedly.
What does the surfacing of the idea tell us? First, that it is August. Far be it from me to flout the spirit of the season by having nothing to say on the subject.
Second, the tentative appearance of a draft Hillary movement tells us that Mr Obama is in trouble. (That was no secret, either.) Views about just how much trouble will harden after November’s midterm elections. If the Democrats get thrashed, no rescue strategy for 2012 will be considered outlandish.
Anxiety is likely to be mounting in the White House, because the polls keep worsening. Mr Obama took office on a wave of goodwill. His job approval rating – a metric that is followed obsessively – was above 60 per cent and his disapproval rating around 20.
In phases, that gap narrowed. By the start of this year it was roughly zero: the country was about equally divided on whether Mr Obama was doing a good job. The polls stayed that way for months.
In the past fortnight a gap has opened. Several polls show disapproval exceeding approval by a statistically meaningful margin. The average tracked by Real Clear Politics says that 49 per cent of voters disapprove of Mr Obama’s performance, compared with 45 per cent approving: less than disastrous, but worrying.
Doug Wilder, a Democrat, and the first black American to be elected governor of a state, got things moving with an article for Politico. The piece was mostly an attack on Mr Biden, and a bitter one. None of what is wrong “seems to matter to Biden”, he said. “People around this country are hurting, and Biden has told them Democrats in Congress and the White House have done all they can or will for them.”
Mr Obama should run with Mrs Clinton, said the former governor. She “has been nothing but a team player who has earned good marks since being asked to serve as secretary of state…Has she ended these 18 months with the stature of someone ready and able to be president were the moment to call for it? The answer, unequivocally, is ‘yes’.”
The criticism of Mr Biden seems unfair, though it is hard to judge any vice-president when the job is framed to make it almost meaningless, which is the norm. (Mr Biden was never going to be a vice-president in the exceptional mould of Dick Cheney, and few would regret that fact.) Yes, he muddles his words; he has had some “YouTube moments” – but nothing serious. He is likeable. He is a valued adviser. Mr Obama apparently listens to him. Not every vice-president could say that of his boss.
The decision about 2012 is less about governing, of course, than campaigning. Would Obama-Clinton be a stronger ticket? I wonder. It would certainly shake things up, which Mr Obama by then may feel he needs to do. Mrs Clinton is popular with white working-class voters – but then so is Mr Biden. Would she draw independents back? Not in great numbers, I would have thought. To be sure, she projects greater competence than Mr Biden does. But who demands competence in a vice-president? (Succession due to the death or disgrace of the president is a factor, but Mr Obama is young and squeaky clean.)
Another problem: Mrs Clinton might not want the job. The notion that her ambition to be president is extinguished would be somewhat hard to accept. Becoming vice-president might not best serve that ambition. It is conceivable, depending on how things go, that she might run against Mr Obama in 2012. (In 2016 she will be pushing 70.) Why rule out the option? Detaching herself from Mr Obama would not be hard.
It is true, as Mr Wilder said, that she has been a team player; but she has also been a minor player. Even in foreign policy she is not perceived as having shaped the administration’s key positions. It would be possible for her to fall out with Mr Obama on some issue of principle – over Afghanistan, let us say – without being accused of reversing herself.
In 2008 I wrote about the Democratic party’s indecision over whether to nominate Mr Obama or Mrs Clinton to run that November. I was sure Mr Obama would be the stronger candidate: I asked, why are the Democrats even having this conversation? He fought a superb campaign, but in office has failed to play to his strengths. A crippled economy may be the main reason he is struggling, but it is not the only reason. He failed to lead from the centre; he failed to champion his own policies; and he delegated too much to an unpopular Congress. It would be interesting to speculate on whether Mrs Clinton would have done better, and at some point she may ask the country to do just that.
For now, what matters is how much trouble the president is in after November. The chances are fair that the Democrats will lose control of the House in a reversal akin to Bill Clinton’s in 1994. More remarkable would be losing the Senate, in a year when the seats up for grabs should have ruled it out. This calamity is beginning to look possible. The worse the Democrats do, the more Mr Obama might be tempted to draft Mrs Clinton – and the more tempted she might be to aim higher.
Then again, as I say, it is August.
More columns at www.ft.com/clivecrook
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