As she begins what could be her final diplomatic mission in the Middle East as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton is again inspiring supporters to contemplate her prospects as a presidential candidate in 2016.
Clinton says she has no plans to seek the White House again. But her admirers hope this is only a temporary stance prompted by weariness and the need to take a break after two decades at the highest levels of public life.
"A lot of people are hoping she'll do it," Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told me. "As we learned in 2007 and 2008, there is no such thing as inevitability in politics, but if she wants it she's in a great position."
Garin was one of Clinton's chief strategists in her unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign.
Many hope Clinton will spend the next year or two recharging her batteries and preparing for 2016. She says she will step down as secretary of state early in 2013, but her friends expect that after a respite from public life, her fiery ambition will return. They say that she has for many years felt a responsibility and a desire to achieve great things, and one of her objectives has been to become the first woman president. Having just turned 65, if she ran in 2016 she would actually be a bit younger than Ronald Reagan was when he won the presidency in 1980.
She still has legions of admirers around the country and would be the front runner for the Democratic nomination if she ran again, according to party professionals. Conservatives no longer consider her a dangerous and extreme liberal, and she has emerged as a pragmatic, progressive centrist who is especially popular among women. Overall, her job-approval ratings exceed 70 percent, far better than those of President Obama, who is forbidden by law from serving a third term.
I got to know her relatively well while covering the presidency of her husband for eight years and while covering her as a presidential candidate in 2008. Over that time, she grew into a mature, experienced leader who learned the importance of compromise and developing personal relationships even with her adversaries. She has retained many of those relationships in Washington, across the United States, and around the world.
For now, Clinton has her hands full as America's top diplomat. She is in the Middle East trying to arrange a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas as violence escalates.
She has been a loyal and dutiful secretary of state for the man who defeated her for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Now the two appear have joined a mutual admiration society. She accompanied Obama on most of his trip to Southeast Asia this week, before he dispatched her to the Middle East. And aides said they spent many pleasant hours together.
"On the flight back from Rangoon to Cambodia, they spent basically the entire flight alone in his personal office on Air Force One just reminiscing about the last four years, but as the president said, it wasn't just the last four years, they've been through a lot together over the last five or six years and, in fact, unique among people, they've been at this, working as hard as they can, for five or six years now," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters.
Rhodes added: "I think what the president expresses and what he believes is not only has she done a great job as secretary of state, but they've really come to become not just partners but close friends, and it's a friendship that he values very much and that he'll want to continue going forward."
But the fact remains that, despite her hard work, Clinton has not been associated with a historic diplomatic success as have some of her predecessors, such as Henry Kissinger with the historic U.S. opening to China during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Her record at State will be more carefully scrutinized in the coming months as she prepares to step down and as she moves on to the next phase of her life. And of course, it's possible that she could achieve some kind of breakthrough on her current mission in the Middle East.
It's also true that the presidency of her boss has been focused more on the economy and creating jobs than on foreign affairs, so her latitude has been restricted.
Over the past two decades, Clinton served as first lady and an informal policy adviser while her husband was president from 1993 to 2001. Then she served as a U.S. senator from New York; ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008, and is now completing four years in the exhausting job of secretary of state.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook or Twitter.