No matter what Barack Obama does, he cannot escape the shadow of his former political opponent. Hillary Clinton, back from her global travels visiting places and peoples hardly heard of on this continent, is stealing the spotlight without even touching the stage.
The former first lady, the former senator and now the former secretary of state is everywhere -- and nowhere to be seen. Sent away by this president upon his unlikely victory in 2008 against the Clinton machine and the inevitable first woman president, Hillary is back.
Few people -- and far fewer women -- have attracted as much attention. She carries the unique burden of being something to everyone: Loved, despised, admired, feared, a role model, a terrifying omen, politician, mother, wife, nemesis, scold, muse. She is a conundrum of one. And she is running for president. Isn't she?
No sooner did Obama begin his second term than the whispers began. This is true for Washington, at least, if nowhere else. With Clinton out of the public eye for the first time since she and her husband occupied the Arkansas governor's mansion, all eyes turned to find her.
Whether to run again for the highest office is surely on her mind. The erstwhile valedictorian who became the wife of Bill Clinton was bound for her own glory, in her own time, eventually. Then came the most unexpected thing of all -- this man Obama, who descended from some distant star to blind the masses with his light. His destiny, alas, was greater than hers.
Will she go for it again? Or is it her fate to fade into the pages of missed opportunities, bad timing and broken promises?
I've asked a half-dozen close Clinton associates if she's running and they all say the same thing: "I have no idea." I suspect that Hillary doesn't really know.
Except that she does know, and all her colleagues really do know, and we all know. Don't we? How does Hillary Clinton walk away from the job that was meant to be hers? Forget fate. What about duty? Doesn't the first woman who has a real shot at becoming president have a duty to run? And win?
It would be exhausting. Time wears us down and Clinton would be 69 in 2016. The past four years have been brutal and she shows the effects of constant travel, immense pressure and a rather noble lack of attention to her vanities. A presidential campaign, though more familiar, would be worse. So much engagement, so many bad meals, a terrible pace for anyone of any age, but especially for a woman who may be musing about grandchildren and doting.
Then again, Clinton is no cookie baker, as we know. And the timing, finally, is right. Her popularity is at its highest level ever. She is admired around the world. She has earned her chops not by inheritance (married to Bill) but through her own sweat and, yes, tears. She has managed through hard work and quiet rectitude to erase most memories of her earlier years as first lady and of the woman who did, indeed, stand by her man when most wouldn't.
Not incidentally, the women's vote is hers. Even Republican women would find it hard not to cast a ballot for Hillary. If not her, then who? And when? The Republican bench may be full, but, with the exception of Jeb Bush, it seems full of vice presidents rather than presidents. A Bush-Clinton contest might drive the country into dynastic delirium, but there would be a certain poetic symmetry: Finally the right Bush and the right Clinton.
Clearly, the Hillary Clinton for president proposition poses more questions than answers. But the calculus comes down to this: She has been working toward this moment essentially all her life, diligently clearing away the brush blocking her path. The zeitgeist is ready for a woman president. Most important, she can win -- and few think the country would be worse for it.