The day after she returned to her job as secretary of state following a month-long medical leave, Hillary Rodham Clinton held a press conference, her first since she had sustained a concussion, due to a fall, that lead to her absence. When one reporter asked if she was going to retire once she left the State Department, Clinton countered: “I don’t know that that is the word I would use, but certainly stepping off the very fast track for a little while.”
For Clinton watchers who parse each of her comments for any clues about a possible 2016 presidential bid, this one delivered. “Hillary Clinton Rules Out ‘Retirement,’” one headline read. “Onwards to the White House?” another asked. By the end of the week, despite her recent health problems, a poll showed Clinton the prohibitive frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination and a formidable challenger to Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, in a possible general-election match-up.
Friends close to Clinton say that her longstanding plan has been to take a break after leaving her post as secretary of state before laying the groundwork for a second run for the presidency. Her recent medical episode underscores her need for a sabbatical. At the same time, though, rarely has there been such a palpable groundswell of anticipation for a politician’s potential run for office.
The reason is simple: Women see in Clinton a female candidate who could not only run for but win the presidency.
“When we look at 2016,” says Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, a group devoted to electing Democratic women to office, “we see this very much as a time to have a woman on the ticket for The White House. The jobs she has done as secretary of state, senator from New York, and first lady make us believe Hillary Clinton would be an excellent president. There would be massive energy surrounding a Clinton presidential campaign.”
Betsy Gotbaum, the former New York City public advocate who knows Clinton through New York political circles, agrees. “Women will be galvanized by her candidacy,” she says. “So many women will be excited, it would create a wave of support nationally she can capitalize on. Right now, she’s the one woman who has the chance of breaking the glass ceiling. We don’t want to miss this opportunity to make history.”
Indeed, the political stage seems to be set for a second Clinton run. “The last election resulted in historic numbers of women elected to Congress,” says Schriock, pointing out that for the first time 20 women serve in the United States Senate (16 of them Democrats) and 81 in the House of Representatives (61 of them Democrats). “We see the last election as a mandate for women leadership.”
In fact, Clinton’s presidential bid in 2008 may have contributed to these record numbers. “Women were inspired to run for the House and the Senate by her first presidential campaign,” Schriock says. “That’s why breaking the glass ceiling would be such a big deal.”
For Hillary Clinton, a second presidential bid would look much different than her first. In 2007, as the strategy for her campaign was taking shape, a decision was made, generally attributed to her chief political architect Mark Penn, for Clinton to run on her qualifications and downplay her gender and the groundbreaking nature of her campaign.
“There is an age-old problem women candidates have,” says Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “Which is: ‘Do I run as the best person for the job and ignore my anatomy or do I run as a woman?’ There is no clear-cut answer.”
The error of Penn’s thinking became clear right away. From the start, Clinton appeared disconnected, aloof—one reason she lost the Iowa caucus. Only after an emotional catharsis on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, followed by a victory in the primary, did Clinton begin to break free from Penn’s misguided vision. Each week, she grew as a candidate, but it soon became evident that Barack Obama had built up a momentum so strong it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Clinton to win.
“The turning point came when there was all of this pressure for Hillary to drop out of the race,” O’Neill says. “A lot of women said, ‘Not so fast. We’ve been working hard for this election for a long time. We deserve a vote.’ The pressure required Hillary to be tough and withstand enormous anger from our friends. Suddenly, Hillary became the feminist candidate.”
It helped that Penn left the campaign at the same time that Maggie Williams, a longtime Clinton aide, began running it. Clinton blossomed as she embraced her campaign’s historic tenor. By the time she withdrew from the race in June following the final primaries, her campaign had come full circle. Her “Eighteen Million Cracks in the Glass Ceiling” speech was her campaign’s best, perhaps the best political speech of her career.
That evolution would not be lost on Clinton in another presidential run. “I think she would do things very differently a second time,” says Judith Hope, a close Clinton ally who is president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Foundation, an organization founded as a result of Clinton’s race for the Senate in 2000. “She played it safe in a way she would be emboldened not to do in a second run. She learned from her mistakes.”
Specifically, Clinton would embrace, not dodge, her gender. “She learned from the first campaign,” Terry O’Neill says, “that what makes her the best person in part is that she is a woman. She doesn’t need to shed any part of herself. It’s her whole personality that makes her the right person to be president of the United States.”
From a cultural standpoint, even though it failed, Clinton’s first run held significant meaning for women. “It created the feeling that one’s gender did not mean one could not win, even if she didn’t,” says Janet Jakobsen, director of Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women. “When Shirley Chisholm ran in 1972, it was clear that her identity meant she was never going to win. With Clinton, it didn’t seem as though her gender meant if you were a woman you could not win. That’s a big change.”
Of course, for Clinton, the main difference between a first and second presidential run would be her tenure as secretary of state. “Look at her record in that job,” says Lilly Ledbetter, who came to know Clinton through Clinton’s early support of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. “She’s traveled more than any other secretary of state. She’s accomplished more than anyone who has held that job.”
One of those accomplishments includes a legacy of advancing women’s issues—a fact that can only enhance a future presidential bid. “At the State Department, Clinton created a special position to focus on women’s issues,” Janet Jakobsen says. “She tried to promote young women in this country going into public service. When women get involved in the political process at a young age, they tend to remain involved as they get older.”
Clinton also advanced women’s issues around the globe. As she traveled to each of the 112 countries she visited, she routinely insisted on meeting with individual women and grassroots women’s organizations in addition to, if not instead of, political figures. By meeting with these women and groups, Clinton empowered them. She advanced such an agenda, Terry O’Neill says, because studies have shown that when decision-making in a community is put into the hands of women, the community flourishes.
“With women in charge,” O’Neill adds, “resources go to health care and education and social welfare as opposed to tobacco and firearms and alcohol. What Clinton is promoting is a vision of how to run the world in a way that allows people—men, women, boys, and girls—to thrive. This comes from empowering women. She wants to do the same thing in this country.”
Beyond what she accomplished for women, Clinton benefited politically from being secretary of state. “It showed her ability to be a leader,” Janet Jakobsen says, “not only around the world but to the American public. One aspect of gender stereotyping says that women are not leaders. Obviously, Clinton’s job as secretary of state shattered that stereotype. The last four years has helped establish a platform for a run in 2016.”
Giving Clinton what Hope calls “a statesmanlike quality,” those four years rounded out her achievements. “She is the smartest, most knowledgeable female out there,” Lilly Ledbetter says. “I could put her with any male in this country as far as understanding of the workings of the government is concerned—the policies, the procedures, the laws. She’s been first lady, senator, secretary of state. She’s an extremely brilliant woman. If she were standing behind a curtain and I did not even know her sex, I would say she could be the next president because she is so qualified and capable.”
On the night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 when first Bill Clinton and then Hillary Clinton spoke to the delegates and gave Barack Obama their unqualified support, Judith Hope approached Hillary backstage after her speech.
Hope was astonished Hillary could offer Obama such an unambiguous, full-throated endorsement, considering the often abject hostility present in the primary campaign.
“You are capable of the most extraordinary political generosity I’ve ever seen,” Hope said.
“Oh, Judith,” Clinton replied. “Life is short.”
And that was that. No anger, no animosity, no resentment. Clinton had already moved on, even if many associated with her campaign had not.
“What struck me,” Hope says, “is Hillary’s ability to see the big picture. She’s been doing this from a very young age. She sees a need to make a difference in the world. She’s focused on using her God-given talents to correct injustices and make things better. She has a calling. This is not just some political career. The woman has answered a calling.”