Why should Hillary settle for being No. 2?

Aaron Guerrero Contributor
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When President Obama appointed Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, it was rightly viewed as a masterful stroke of Machiavellian politicking; a modern day demonstration of the philosopher’s famous creed: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

It’s true that Obama’s desire to have Hillary on board was based more in sincerity than cynicism. While friends and advisors questioned the wisdom and logic of his choice, Obama stood firm. He praised her “attention to nuance.” He noted her “discipline.”  And he stressed the importance of what her unique talents could bring to the table.

Still, a man of Obama’s political instincts surely couldn’t ignore the political benefits of having Hillary Clinton boxed in his cabinet. Had she returned to the Senate, she could have resisted or critiqued core parts of his agenda, similar to what John McCain did on issues like taxes and the environment during the early years of the Bush administration.  And any hopes she may have had of mounting an intra-party rebellion against him in 2012 were made infinitely more difficult due to her official status as a team player. It’s tough to credibly excoriate an administration that you have been a key part of.

But if the secondary aim of appointing Clinton was to marginalize her as a political player, it failed. Nearly 21 months into the Obama presidency, speculation over Clinton’s future is as intense today as it has ever been. Part of this is attributable to the tabloid-like culture that pervades cable news and the blogosphere. They hang on every word and watch every move, in hopes of catching some kind of Freudian slip that helps decode an opportunistic ulterior motive. But it’s also attributable to Obama’s decline and Clinton’s rise.

Perceptions of the two have virtually been turned upside down during Obama’s time in office. The bruising battles over the stimulus, health care, and financial reform have forced him to become a polarizing partisan. On the campaign trail, he has replaced pledges of hope and change with conspiracy theories that aim to confirm the worst suspicions about his political opponents. Meanwhile, Clinton has become the competent diplomat who receives bipartisan praise for her conduct across the globe.

If Obama’s vulnerability increases in the run up to 2012, Clinton’s political hand will strengthen and her options will grow, extending a new round of hypothesizing over what she might do. A perfect example of this occurred last week, when legendary reporter Bob Woodward told CNN that Clinton could be Obama’s running mate next time around.

At this point in her career, the chance to hold the V.P. slot would be small potatoes. Hillary Clinton doesn’t need another stepping stone if the ultimate goal is reaching the White House. She has been a first lady; a senator from a major state; came a breath away from winning her party’s presidential nomination; and has performed admirably and ably in her role as secretary of state.

An intra-party challenge to Obama in 2012 seems unlikely due to both historical and current political trends. Yes, base Democrats have grown dissatisfied and disgruntled with what they view as Obama’s lack of partisan fervor and unwillingness to maintain his ground on major policy issues. But they have given no indication of abandoning him. A September Gallup poll showed Obama walloping Clinton among Democrats by 15 percent.

Hillary Clinton is too smart of a politician to try and challenge the Obama juggernaut directly. It would be a dead-end venture that would squander her newfound political clout and all but end her presidential aspirations (Think Teddy Kennedy in 1980).

Instead, she will play the waiting game, with a careful eye on 2016. By then, the age of Obama will either be concluding or Democrats will be fired up to unseat a Republican president. If conditions are right, Hillary may get her final shot at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue after all.

Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.