Rumors about Hillary Clinton’s next job abound. Will she challenge President Obama in the primary? Or swap with Joe Biden for the vice presidency? Now that she’s reaffirmed her intention to retire if Obama wins a second term, expect the speculation to redouble.
So what are Clinton’s options? First off, she isn’t going to challenge Obama in a primary race. Clinton and her advisers have repeatedly and unequivocally shot down such speculation. Responding to Dick Cheney’s possibly goading recommendation that she run against Obama, Clinton said there is a “below zero chance.”
The Biden-Clinton switch, a gambit most recently put forward by The New York Times’s Bill Keller, has more going for it. Clinton is a more exciting campaigner than Biden, it would set her up for a 2016 run, and Biden has always wanted to be secretary of state. Nevertheless, Clinton has given it the same response treatment as the primary challenge, saying she has “absolutely no interest and no reason to do anything other than dismissing these stories and moving on.”
Clinton’s repeated denials aren’t the only thing going against a bid for the presidency. There’s also the weight of recent history. Going from secretary of state to the presidency is more of a 19th-century career path, says Edward Burkowitz, a history professor at George Washington University. Recent secretaries tend to retire, like Colin Powell, occasionally supplementing their pensions by giving speeches.
Secretaries who came from academia, like Condoleeza Rice, Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, or George Shultz, usually go back. Similarly, secretaries who came from legal careers often return, like John Foster Dulles. James Baker also followed this course, while aiding and advising his party in times of need—Bush v. Gore, for example.
Like former presidents, former secretaries of state can serve as their party’s eminence grise. Baker is one example. Dean Acheson, secretary under Harry Truman, is another. Kennedy called him out of retirement to act as a liaison with Charles de Gaulle during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Obama administration has asked Powell for advice and used Albright as a representative at summits. “That’s a tradition and that’s certainly a possibility for Hillary,” says Burkowitz. “She could be called to Haiti if there’s a disaster or sent to state funerals.”
But Burkowitz says that if anyone can buck the historical trend, it’s Clinton. She was the first first lady to run for office, and the first to hold a cabinet position, and the first female senator to represent New York. Add to this the last four years of foreign policy experience, and she has a uniquely strong resume for a presidential run. There’s the added bonus that unlike, say, Timothy Geithner, she’s presided over one of the more successful and popular aspects of Obama’s presidency. She could claim credit for Osama bin Laden and Libya while washing her hands of the bailouts and lethargic recovery. “If she still desires to be president in four years, she’ll have a wonderful portfolio,” says Burkowitz.
Clinton did seem to leave the door open to an eventual return to politics, though she’s said on other occasions that she has no interest in reliving 2008. After telling an audience of State Department employees Thursday that “It would be a—probably a good idea to just find out how tired I am,” she conceded that “Everyone always says that when they leave these jobs.”
Even if she decides to run in 2016, she’ll still have four years to kill. She has indicated she might spend them working toward women’s and children’s rights, possibly starting a foundation. During a speech in Bahrain two years ago, she said, “I think I’ll serve as secretary of state as my last public position and then probably go back to advocacy work, particularly on behalf of women and children.” Advocacy work would be a return to the beginnings of her legal career, when she served as a staff attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund in Massachusetts, but now she’d have the clout that comes with decades spent at the top of the political world.
But in another scenario, Clinton wouldn’t have to wait nearly as long before taking on an executive position. Of the possible post-secretary jobs bandied about recently, by far the most credible is president of the World Bank.
Rumors of Clinton’s going to the bank first circulated this summer, when Christine Lagarde took over the International Monetary Fund from the disgraced Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Traditionally, a European and an American have headed the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, so if France gets the IMF, the U.S. is under pressure to put forward a candidate powerful enough to quiet objections from Brazil, India, and other countries that want a shot. Clinton, with her experience in the White House, Congress, and the cabinet, would be a strong contender, and her longstanding interest in development work would make it an attractive position.