If Obama looks as if he'll lose in 2012, what about Hillary Clinton?

Approval ratings for Obama are at a historic low. Unemployment is not budging. Clinton would have to step down as secretary of State. Would it be unseemly to campaign against a president, in whose cabinet she once served? Just ask Jon Huntsman Jr.

This is a pretty dismal time for President Obama.

He campaigned on a platform to change Washington, but as he himself admitted in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the atmosphere there is worse since he became president.

His popularity is at an all-time low. It is no surprise that many Republicans want to give him the heave-ho in 2012. He is not exactly wowing independents, and even some Democrats, especially African-Americans, are grumbling.

In The New York Times, liberal columnist Maureen Dowd complains: “He got the job by blaming Washington. But once you’re in the White House, you are Washington. It’s like the plumber who came to fix the sink waiting for the sink to fix itself.”

In The Wall Street Journal, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan opines: “He has made big mistakes.... His baseline political assumptions have proved incorrect, his calculations have turned out to be erroneous, his big decisions have turned to dust.... He thought the stimulus would turn the economy around. It didn’t.”

On the foreign-policy front, his successful decision to go after Osama bin Laden was gutsy. But throughout the Arab Spring he was indecisive. On Syria, he procrastinated before declaring that the murderous Bashar al-Assad should step down. On Libya, he led “from behind,” as one White House aide famously described it. We should all be grateful that no American lives were lost. But how many Libyan freedom fighters’ lives could have been saved by earlier US forcefulness?

If the unemployment figures are nearly as bad this time next year as they are now, Mr. Obama’s reelection to a second term may be problematic.
If his defeat seems inevitable, will Democrats contemplate an alternative candidate? If so, who?

There is already some whispering. The name “Hillary Clinton” crosses lips. Despite a flurry of denials and her protestations that she will retire at the end of 2012, the issue has been raised by reporters at White House press briefings and on TV networks such as Fox.

In the curious way we elect our presidents – so bemusing to many foreigners – Hillary Rodham Clinton got more of the people’s vote than Obama in the primaries: 18,223,120 to his 18,011,877. Neither candidate received enough delegates from state primary races and caucuses to reach a majority at the party convention, but “superdelegate” votes pushed Obama over the top.

Some problems would attend a Clinton campaign. She would obviously need to resign as secretary of State. But she has already said she will leave that position at the end of a first Obama term.

Would it be unseemly to campaign against a Democratic president in whose cabinet she served? Well, Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican who served as Obama’s ambassador to China, seems to have rationalized his readiness to campaign against Obama. He argues that he served the office of the president, not necessarily Obama the president. Clinton has been a loyal foreign minister for Obama, although privately pressing for more fervor on several issues.
Clinton’s main problem would be a late start against a president whose campaign is already under way. It is one in which Obama is intent on raising a war chest of record size.

She would be at a disadvantage in staffing and funding. The primaries determine which delegates are pledged to vote for which candidates at the convention. But they are not legally bound to vote for the winning candidates. Theoretically a dark horse could emerge at the Democratic convention if Obama’s ratings were so abysmal his reelection was deemed impossible.

However implausible a Hillary candidacy might seem, it would be surprising if the Clintons had not wistfully pondered the possibility of Hillary yet winning the presidency that once eluded her so narrowly.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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