Hillary Clinton's next act

  • Article by: STEPHANIE MCCRUMMEN , Washington Post
  • Updated: November 26, 2012 - 9:45 PM

Those looking to 2016 wonder what the outgoing secretary of state has planned for the next election cycle. But after globe-trotting for four years, she wants some time to rest and reflect.

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Hillary Clinton’s most recent trips were to Southeast Asia with the president and then to the Middle East to help broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

Photo: Matt Rourke, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON

On a recent Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked with her husband onto a stage at the New York Sheraton to cheers and whoops and a standing ovation that only got louder as she tried to quiet things down.

It was a friendly crowd -- the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative -- and people may have been eager to hear her speech about using U.S. aid to target investment barriers. But really, they were there to see her.

"She's just looked so sad and so tired," said Ritu Sharma, a women's rights activist, referring to Clinton's appearances in the days after the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.

They wanted to defend her. Mostly, though, people wondered what the woman walking across the stage would choose to do next. In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton has reiterated that she will not stay on for President Obama's second term, unleashing fresh waves of speculation.

There is hypothesizing that she is merely entering a hibernation period before a 2016 presidential bid. There is talk that she will start her own women's rights initiative.

What is clear is that despite lingering questions about Benghazi, Clinton is more beloved than at any point in her long and at times controversial career, commanding soaring approval ratings and a vast fundraising machine.

Next, she just wants to chill

The truth is, though, that no one is sure what Hillary Clinton will do, possibly not even Clinton herself, who has said her plans include sleeping and watching the home-improvement show "Love It or List It," which she finds calming.

But there may be one way to figure out what Clinton may ultimately decide, and that is to examine what she has already done in her long career as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state.

Beyond carrying out the Obama administration's foreign policy and troubleshooting global crises, Clinton has deliberately carved out her own agenda during her four years as secretary of state, making an array of choices that reflect who she is after more than 30 years in public service.

Of these, the first was her decision to sublimate any resentment that had come between her and Obama during their fight for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

The rest are more obscure. They include promoting a milk cooperative in Malawi and low-pollution "clean" cookstoves in China and attending an environmental summit in Greenland's capital, Nuuk. They include decidedly unglamorous events, such as a conference devoted to gender-specific data collection, and thousands of miles traveled to often-overlooked places.

"I'm very happy that my 100th country was Latvia," Clinton told students in Riga in June.

21st-century diplomacy

From the start, Clinton has explained her agenda as part of a new "21st-century diplomacy" that demands the United States be more attuned to the grass roots of the world and relies on development and civilian power as much as military might. Some say that Clinton diluted her energy and failed to achieve any signature triumphs, such as an end to the Syrian crisis. Others argue that through a thousand lesser-known efforts and initiatives, she has achieved nothing less than a transformative shift toward a more effective and modern U.S. diplomacy.

What is certain is that Clinton's choices tell a story about who she is and perhaps what she will decide to do.

Of all the things that Clinton's friends say about her, opinions bend toward two essential facets of her character.

The first is that in the time they have known her, Clinton has not really changed except to become more of the person she has always been: a deeply optimistic Methodist who believes that government can advance human progress, and a hopeless wonk who knows her yurts from her gers.

The second is that while Clinton is a famously shrewd political operator, she is never more energized or relentless as when she is pursuing a cause that she believes will improve people's lives.

"This job has just amplified things that have always been there," said Betsy Ebeling, a friend of Clinton's since their childhood in Chicago. "It's given her a great stage for the many things she's always cared about, only now she has the whole world."

While Clinton's initiatives have not led to major foreign policy shifts, they have resulted in project after project.

"People roll their eyes when she talks about clean cookstoves," said Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton's policy planning chief until last year. "But if the Alliance for Clean Cookstoves succeeds" -- an initiative Clinton launched to get 100 million homes to ditch toxic fires for clean-burning stoves -- "we will have reduced carbon, improved women's security and saved millions of lives, and that is enormous."

All of which may help answer the question of whether Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016 -- whether she will seek the job with the most power to do the most good -- by posing another question: whether she can keep herself from it.

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