2012 is still two years away—a veritable lifetime in American, or any other, politics. But that shouldn’t stop us from talking, or even fantasizing, about the next presidential election. After all, what else is there to lick our lips over these days—Linda McMahon? Michaele Salahi? Mad Men?
Given the political imponderables—and there are many, many of those—there are three things one might say for near-certain about 2012:
1. Barack Obama will run again. 2. Joe Biden will not be the ideal running mate for Obama. 3. Hillary Clinton, cocooned at State, will be her party’s least sullied heavy hitter; and the way the Democrats deploy her could make or break the party.
The vice president’s job is Hillary’s for the asking—and, if the Republicans aren’t careful, the taking.
Obama first. Whatever his failings as a reformer and a president, and however much of a beating he takes in the midterms later this year, there is absolutely no way that this racially peerless president will not offer himself to the nation for a second term. And why should he not? Carter did. And Carter was but the first peanut farmer to be president. Obama, by contrast, was truly cathartic, and revolutionary like no other candidate, ever, and that’s a fact. (Even his opponents will admit to his election being, for America, a historic, civic watershed.)
Biden: Dear old Biden. Let us not be naïve. Obama needed him. Obama, the first serious black candidate for the White House, needed someone reassuringly all-American to run with him. It was a question of political aesthetics. Biden, with his hard-Scranton childhood, was the perfect foil to Obama’s unprecedented blackness-on-the-brink-of-power. He continues to be so in ways big and small: Why else would he have accompanied Obama, for instance, to that seemingly picayune beer summit with Professor Gates and the Cambridge cop? Obama needed Biden, at election and for some time after, to demonstrate that Middle America had no reason to fear him. Yet now, Obama has need for more—much more—than a jolly, ruddy dude who serves as a racial palliative. He needs…
... Hillary Clinton. The secretary of State has been quite magnificent at her job, the only member of the Obama Cabinet who has not looked mediocre or worse in recent months. If The New York Times were functioning as it would, without doubt, under a Republican administration, there would, by now, have been a Page One story—above the fold!—headed: “Clinton Forges Own Path in Foreign Policy.” In an administration that has become a byword for overreach, Hillary has struck a tone of hard-nosed, understated dignity, of no-nonsense professionalism, of a pant-suited determination in telling contrast to the panty-waist in the White House.
My thesis is simple: If Obama wishes to be re-elected in 2012, he would hamstring himself if he did not hire Hillary as his running mate. Biden has served his purpose. He should be offered the vista of a dignified retirement and the prospect of a vice-presidential library in Scranton, Pennsylvania, that “absolute jerkwater of a town” where he was raised. (Would Obama dare to dangle Biden before the nation as a Supreme Court nominee? Don’t count it out. Remember Harriet Miers!) It is quite unlikely that Biden would agree to replace Hillary as secretary of State, as some have suggested.
Of course, if Obama is in as much trouble in two years as he is today, there’s little he can do to stave off defeat, with or without Biden. But the GOP being what it currently is—a sclerotic, brain-dead, knee-jerk outfit at sixes and sevens with the American people and bereft of ideas with which to counter the incumbents (most of the wounds on Obama have been inflicted by Tea Party insurgents)—the chances are that Obama in 2012 will be competitive in a cutthroat election.
But if the GOP gets its act together—if Chris Christie rises to supra-Jersey heights, for example—or Obama implodes, the Democrats will need a frame to hold the party together. Hillary Clinton would be that frame. The way things are going, there is every likelihood that there will be a major personnel shift after the midterms, with Emanuel, Gibbs, Summers, Holbrooke, and some others being bid a well-deserved adieu. Hillary, I wager, would step down as secretary of State in early 2012, to campaign for Obama—the way that James Baker did for George H.W. Bush’s second run. The campaign deal would offer Hillary the vice president’s job, thereby ensuring—not that she would ever contemplate an insurrection—that she would not challenge Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Do not discount the possibility that Obama, having won once already on the back of the “historic,” would not wish to gamble once more with a historic ticket. An Obama-Hillary pairing, however cynically confected, would change, once more, the face of American politics. Explicit in the equation would be the understanding that a woman, Hillary, would be next in line for the White House, and age is on her side. If the nation, unimpressed by the GOP’s meager menu of candidates and ideas, latches afresh onto an urge to make history, why would it not give Obama and Hillary a vote above some GOP pill who gets into an awful tangle over second-order issues like gay marriage and mosques in our midst? And Hillary—sensible, maternal, cerebral, professional, reassuring—will be a magnet for crossover voting by independents, women in particular.
In sum, 2012 is going to be a bruising, battling presidential election: Barack Obama is going to need Hillary more than he needs Biden. He’s going to need Hillary, also, because he needs Bill. The vice president’s job is Hillary’s for the asking—and, if the Republicans aren’t careful, the taking.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)