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From mistakes, Clinton has learned, adjusted

She stresses her experience, especially as first lady, as her chief qualification to be president. Her career includes both accomplishments and missteps.

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David Gergen, a veteran of Republican administrations and an early adviser in the Clinton White House, refers to their governing arrangement as a "copresidency." Clinton herself speaks of having had "a front-row seat on history." Bill Galston, another senior Clinton White House adviser, says neither characterization works; copresident is "obviously hyperbole," while merely having a ringside seat "goes too far in the other direction."

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The travails of healthcare reform

Clinton as first lady is most famous for her ill-fated attempt to reform America's healthcare system, an assignment she and her husband unveiled amid great fanfare and that, ultimately, came to symbolize the disastrous first quarter of the Clinton administration – and contributed to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. In their effort to restructure one-seventh of the American economy, Clinton and her team had formulated a complex plan that tried to "do too much, too fast," Clinton writes in her memoirs.

The list of miscalculations is long: The Clintons misjudged the values of the country, the president's political strength, the Congress, and interest groups, Mr. Gergen writes in his book "Eyewitness to Power." They eschewed compromise, allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Still, Gergen – who had his differences with the first lady – describes her as "brilliant and articulate."

"But to assign her primary responsibility for designing the program and navigating its passage through Congress was to place upon her more of a burden than any first lady could bear, even Mrs. Clinton," he concludes.

After the failure of health reform, Clinton scaled back her public profile, as her recently released White House schedules demonstrate. But it would take until early 1997 for her unfavorable ratings in the Gallup poll to sink below 40 percent, even there, a high number for a first lady. Clinton's role in various controversies – beginning with the firing of the White House travel office staff in 1993 and on through various aspects of the Whitewater scandal, including the missing Rose Law Firm billing records that turned up in the White House residence after almost two years of searches and subpoenas – contributed to her high negatives. To this day, she suffers from a perceived "honesty gap" when compared with both Obama and McCain. In mid-March, Gallup found 44 percent of the public sees her as "honest and trustworthy" versus 63 percent for Obama and 67 percent for McCain.

But through it all, she never lost her focus on healthcare.

Former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta recalls how, within a few months of the demise of the Health Security Act, she took on the health issues of Vietnam veterans. "It was her initiative," says Mr. Panetta. "We had some good meetings; she led the discussion."