Yet any sense of inevitably is decidedly premature. After all, Clinton was considered the prohibitive favorite for the 2008 Democratic nomination for several years, right up until Obama beat her in Iowa. Like Obama, some of the potential contenders for 2016 are largely unknown quantities whose strengths cannot yet be measured.
There's no question Clinton's years as a well-regarded senator and especially her statesmanship in the Obama administration have lifted her above the partisan fray and improved her standing with the public. Her favorability rating in polls is at its highest point in her career, 67 percent in a recent Washington Post-ABC survey, indicating that the polarization that marked her years in the White House, seen again in the 2008 campaign, has been overcome.
Some of that hard-earned respect would vanish the moment she re-emerges as the face of the Democratic Party and becomes a critical player in rancorous debates over immigration, abortion, debt, taxes, health care and more.
Inevitably, she would in some ways revert to the divisive personality, who — fairly or unfairly — in the 1990s inspired a massive campaign to defeat her "Hillarycare" health overhaul and became the first president's wife to appear before a grand jury when called on by the Whitewater investigation. That probe, the White House travel office firings, her feminist positions and the many donors to her husband's campaigns invited to stay at the White House made some voters cynical about the Clintons' integrity and moved critics to go after her in strikingly personal terms.
Columnist William Safire, for one, famously labeled her "a congenital liar."
Clinton, of course, wasn't one to shy away from confrontation herself.
In the 2008 campaign, she called Obama a "slum landlord" representative and called out the Illinois senator with the riposte "Shame on you, Barack Obama." A decade earlier, she dismissed talk of her husband's infidelity as part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" that had dogged him for years.
A MANGLED TALE
Now, reaction to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, in particular, is being looked at by her allies as a cautionary tale of the tone that awaits any future presidential bid. Although no investigation has specifically faulted Clinton or backed up claims of a conspiracy by the Obama administration to provide disinformation about the assault, Benghazi's timing in the final weeks of a close presidential contest led to bitter and personal criticism of Clinton in the blogosphere, on cable television and on Capitol Hill.
It went so far that some critics suggested she was faking a "diplomatic illness," as John Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador for President George W. Bush, put it, to avoid testifying on Benghazi.
"There is an obligation here, especially if Secretary Clinton decides to run for president, to indicate what happened," Bolton said.
With the country pressing for answers after Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi attack, Clinton left the difficult task of presenting the Obama administration's response to Susan Rice, America's U.N. envoy and her would-be successor as secretary of state.
Relying on talking points drafted by U.S. intelligence, Rice delivered the now-retracted version of the consulate siege as a protest hijacked by extremists, with no evidence to suggest the attack was premeditated. Three months later, Rice was forced to withdraw from consideration to succeed Clinton because of fierce criticism from Republicans in the Senate.
Clinton seems not to have made up her mind on a presidential run, although she insists, seemingly less strenuously than before, that she is through with the high-wire of politics. Certainly many of her supporters, who just days ago launched a super PAC to support another presidential run, want her to go for it.
At a September meeting in New York, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked her: "What are you going to do?" It was an apparent reference to her post-secretary plans. Clinton shook her head and said, "I don't know."