Hillary Clinton, demurring on ’16 presidential bid, urges others to ‘step up’

Laura Rozen
The Envoy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to downplay the ongoing speculation on her political future, telling NBC Today Show's Savannah Guthrie Monday that she is grateful for the chances she has had to serve as first lady, senator and top U.S. diplomat, but insisting she is eagerly looking forward to more of a private life.

"You know, Savannah, I am very privileged to have had opportunities to serve this country . . . . But I am very old fashioned," Clinton told Guthrie in the exclusive Today Show interview Monday. "I want to try some other things--writing, teaching, working with women and children . . . . I have made my contribution. I am very grateful to have had the chance to serve, but I think it's time for others to step up."

It's true that numerous polls have showed Clinton the most popular figure in the Obama cabinet, and Gallup surveys have designated her the nation's most popular woman nine years running. And "Today" host Guthrie asked Clinton whether her new renown prompted her to feel vindicated in the wake of her 2008 Democratic primary defeat to her present-day boss, President Barack Obama.

"It feels irrelevant to me, because a decision was made," Clinton told Guthrie in the exclusive interview aired on the "Today Show" Monday. "I think the president has done an excellent job under the most difficult circumstances."

With "20 years of this work behind me--I feel like this is all predictable," Clinton continued. "We are living in times that are hard to navigate, and need leadership that is willing to make hard decisions, and I think the president has done that."

"Because I have been on the public consciousness for so long and on television screens in people's homes, I think there's a comfort" level with herself, Clinton mused. She went on to mock her familiarity on the American public stage: "'Yes, there's always her again.'"

Guthrie asked Clinton whether she looks forward to retiring from public life and sitting around the house with husband Bill--and Clinton told her she is thrilled at the prospect. And she stuck to her recent script, repeating that she intends to retire from the State Department after Obama's first term, and devote herself to writing, teaching, and launching private-sector projects to advance her longtime interest in promoting women's and children's development.

"I can't wait," she said. "Obviously, we are going to be very active. But it's something I am really looking forward to enjoying. When I get to go home on the weekend"--an all-too rare occurrence in her current job as Obama's top diplomat, for which she has logged more than 600,000 miles--"it's great to be able to do as little as possible . . . . After this [last] 20 years, it will be very welcome."

Clinton demurred on Guthrie's question of her interest in another presidential run in 2016--although her "I want to try some other things" hardly seemed an adamant denial.

Still, numerous U.S. officials and Democratic foreign policy hands say they take Clinton at her word that she'll clear out of the State Department next year, at the end of Obama's present term in office.  (They do, however, suggest that Clinton isn't going to simply fade into the background. "One thing is for sure: this woman is not retiring," a State Department official told the Envoy early this month on condition of anonymity.)

In the meantime, numerous U.S. officials and Democratic foreign policy hands say three figures have emerged in the whispering campaign over who will succeed Clinton atop the State Department if Obama goes on to win a second term. Among them, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice; Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass); and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

Each candidate has their pros and cons. Rice, once considered Clinton's heir apparent, has stepped up her undeclared candidacy for the job, doing more Jewish outreach for the Obama administration--such as coordinating the messaging on America's recent pledge to veto the Palestinian UN statehood bid, administration hands told The Envoy. While past UN envoys--such as Madeline Albright--have gone on to Secretary of State, one problem for Rice is that her post--while elevated to a cabinet position--has been relatively low profile in the Obama administration, when so much international engagement has been conducted by the globally engaged Obama himself and Clinton. (Under this scenario, if Rice moved to Foggy Bottom, National Security Council senior adviser on multilateral assistance and human rights Samantha Power would be a leading candidate for the UN envoy job, officials say.)

Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Kerry has traveled widely as a discreet presidential envoy for Obama on sensitive missions to places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and previously Syria. Still, while Kerry possesses strong credentials for the job, were he to take it, the administration would face two obvious and immediate challenges. First, a senior Senate Democrat stepping down would threaten to tilt the Democrats' already narrow balance of power in the chamber to the Republicans, especially after next year's Senate race. And Kerry's departure from the Foreign Relations committee would almost certainly leave it short of a chair as effective and friendly to administration initiatives.

Donilon, a veteran Democratic lawyer, and former aide to then Secretary of State Warren Christopher, is also interested in the top diplomatic job, numerous officials told the Envoy. One official described Donilon's tactical bid for the job as suitably cloak-and-dagger: "campaigning by not campaigning." In his capacity as national security adviser, Donilon already works closely with the president; he also has long-standing ties with Vice President Biden, who has taken an active hand in diplomatic matters. What's more, if he were to move to Foggy Bottom, forsaking his present post would not create other logistical headaches for the administration--and he fits into the mold of low-drama, non-ideological lawyer-manager types whom the administration had singled out for prominent posts with international portfolios, such as current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Some handicappers suggest as a result that Donilon may currently have an inside line on the post. But all such speculation presumes, of course, that Obama actually wins a second term--by no means a foregone conclusion in the present political climate.

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