Hillary Was Being Diplomatic

The takeaway from Hillary Clinton’s “Today Show” interview this week, at least to judge by the media’s coverage of it, was the secretary of state’s emphatic-seeming statement that “no, no, no,” she won’t run for president again.

“This is a great job,” Mrs. Clinton said. “It is a 24/7 job, and I’m looking forward to retirement at some point.”

But the more meaningful words from the broadcast actually came from “Today” host Meredith Vieira, who said after the segment aired: “Check her in a few more years, though, on that running for president. We’ll see.”

Ms. Vieira’s skepticism (and that of any similar-minded viewer) is well-grounded—and not just because Mrs. Clinton began her response with out-of-context laughter, generally a signal that whatever follows will be complete hooey.

No matter what she says right now, there really is every reason to suspect that Mrs. Clinton will end up running for president again—in 2016, when the Democratic nomination will be wide open.

Try to take the long view on this one. Yes, Barack Obama’s popularity has dropped off from the ridiculous levels of January and February, and yes, Republicans are poised to make gains—possibly significant gains—in next year’s midterm elections.

But it still remains a good bet that Mr. Obama will be re-elected in 2012. The economy should be in much better shape by then—in which case the considerable personal good will that most voters have toward Mr. Obama will reassert itself. This is the same basic pattern that took Ronald Reagan on a four-year journey from a landslide election in 1980 to a humbling midterm setback in 1982 and back to another landslide victory in 1984.

Politically, the question then would be which Democrat is in line to assume to Obama mantle for 2016. Ordinarily, this would be the loyal vice president—the path that George H.W. Bush and Al Gore followed to their parties’ presidential nominations. But it’s not so clear-cut in this administration, since Joe Biden will be 73 when ’16 rolls around—and 74 on Inauguration Day in 2017.

Mr. Biden is intent on keeping his options open. His spokesman earlier this year made it clear that he was reserving the right to run, and not ruling it out ahead of time like Dick Cheney did. But unlike Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore, he is not seeking to milk the vice presidency for its long-term political benefits.

Instead, he’s been happy to immerse himself in weighty internal debates, especially over foreign policy. If he were to run for the Democratic nomination in ’16, he’d be formidable—but nothing like the odds-on favorite that Mr. Gore was in 2000.

In fact, Mrs. Clinton is actually better positioned to assume the next-in-line role. Hers was no ordinary primary campaign last year; she accumulated nearly 20 million votes (nearly doubling her husband’s total when he won—in a rout—the 1992 nomination) and won numerous primaries and caucuses. Her defeat was an upset, but it wasn’t the kind of reputation-killer that, say, Rudy Giuliani’s one-delegate performance on the G.O.P. side was.

More than a year later, Mrs. Clinton remains the second-biggest name in Democratic politics, behind only Mr. Obama. No one else—not even Mr. Biden—is even close. And, so far at least, her work as secretary of state has only enhanced her stature. As she jets from one corner of the world to another (and makes headlines at every stop), Americans have gotten a chance to see her essentially acting like a president—a leader on the world stage, not just another senator making pointless floor speeches and casting procedural votes.

And by all accounts, her relationship with Mr. Obama, defined by mutual mistrust and scorn during and immediately after their campaign, is now cooperative and even friendly. It helps that she has done nothing as secretary of state to arouse suspicions of grand-standing and political posturing at Mr. Obama’s expense. She’s been the team player that many of Mr. Obama’s supporters doubted she’d ever be. In terms of ’16, this has earned her many new potential friends—and cost her none of those she already had.

It’s hard to believe that someone with Mrs. Clinton’s demonstrated ambition—nearly a decade of meticulous preparation preceded her White House bid—would just thumb her nose at a second chance at the prize she most covets, especially when (at least this far out) the odds are in her favor.