|Smart money is on Hillary Clinton for 2016
Hillary Clinton was written off as a failed presidential candidate who would never have another run at the White House. Not any more, writes Toby Harnden in Washington.
The Telegraph | December 19, 2009
Driving past the White House the other day, my eye was caught by the bumper sticker on the shiny black Toyota Prius in front of me. It read: "We love you Hillary - Clinton for President, 2016".
A year ago, I'd have snorted at the slogan and kept my distance from the vehicle - judging the driver to be a delusional Clintonite diehard still desperately fighting the reality that the former First Lady's presidential aspirations were history.
Now, the person behind that wheel seems to be on the money. Having elected Barack Obama amid near national euphoria, America is experiencing something akin to buyer's remorse.
Obama's popularity is the lowest of any American president at the end of his first year in office since polling began. Yet as his approval ratings have nose-dived, those of his Secretary of State have curved elegantly upwards.
A recent poll by the Clarus Research Group found that Hillary Clinton had a 75 per cent approval rating compared to 51 per cent for the man who defeated her in their epic battle for the Democratic nomination.
These are very early days to handicap 2016 but it's already clear that she has gone from being the supposedly inevitable 2008 nominee who had blown her one big chance as odds-on favourite to be the next Democratic president.
When Mrs Clinton accepted the job of Secretary of State many of her supporters feared she was falling into a trap. Fearing that she could be a rival source of power from Capitol Hill, Obama calculated she would be less of a threat if he brought her inside his tent.
The downsides for the former First Lady were obvious. She would give up her cherished seat as Senator for New York, which gave her an independent power base. Her voice on domestic policy would be silenced.
And her fortunes would inevitably be linked to the man whom she fervently believed was not up to the top job.
It is a sign of Mrs Clinton's astuteness that she said yes and now finds herself ideally placed to succeed Mr Obama or, in the increasingly plausible scenario that he becomes a one-term president, the Republican who ousts him in 2012.
During the past year, Mrs Clinton has done just what she did when she entered the Senate in 2001 - knuckled down to the hard grind of policy while building relationships with wary sceptics.
The woman who was one of the most polarising figures in American politics now has a glowing 65 per cent approval rating among Independents and healthy 57 per cent among Republicans.
Even sworn enemies on the Right marvelled at her toughness in refusing to concede to Obama until the bitter end in the summer of 2008 and now view her as more hawkish than the president.
Mrs Clinton, moreover, has lived in Arkansas and won over conservatives in upstate New York as well as trouncing Obama in states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania - establishing a connection with Middle America that has eluded the president.
Though Obama trumpeted the notion that he was appointing a "team of rivals" to his Cabinet, Mrs Clinton has been instrumental in making his foreign policy team one of the most harmonious in memory by striking up a firm friendship with Robert Gates, the canny Defence Secretary chief held over from the Bush administration.
In the eight administrations Gates has served in, no two Pentagon and State Department heads have been as close. After the poisonous relations between advisers to Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, it is a startling turnaround.
The alliance between Clinton and Gates - who both argued for a robust troop increase from the outset - helped to stiffen Obama's spine over Afghanistan.
Mrs Clinton can afford to be assiduously loyal because her critique of Obama - "a lot of talk, no action" is how she acidly described him in March last year - is already out there and increasingly resonant. She now has unassailable credentials in the one area where she appeared weak in 2008 - foreign policy.
She has been able to stay out of the contentious debates over health care, Wall Street bailouts and the spiraling deficit while her husband, confounding many, has been a low-key apparent model of propriety since she took over at Foggy Bottom.
Two months ago, Mrs Clinton answered, straight-faced, with a flat "no" when asked if she would ever run for president again, even adding that "it never crosses my mind".
Perhaps that patently implausible denial was the surest indication of all that Mrs Clinton is better placed than ever to become America's first female president - and she knows it.