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Obama's Honeymoon and Chelsea's Wedding Are Over. What Now Hillary?

08/03/2010 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Keep your eyes on Hillary Clinton. Realpolitik has finally caught up with Obama's rhetorical presidency. And "the most important thing" in her life--Chelsea's wedding, if one is to believe Clinton's statement to Polish TV--is also finally over.

So what is the most ambitious woman in Washington to do now? Obviously, turn to the second most important thing in her life: Politics.

The Obama presidency is in a state of uncertainty, which makes it a tempting political piñada. Its fate is likely to be affected as much by the results of the November midterm elections as by the assessment of those results by the Administration's super-politico, the Secretary of State.

Hillary Clinton never signed on for a full Obama term, and when asked whether she will stay to the end, she carefully sidesteps the question these days. How long she stays in the Cabinet after the November election will tell us a lot about the kind of bet she is placing on a second term for Obama.

Already the punditry has taken note of the impact that Clinton might have on Obama's delicate political fate. There are suggestions, here and there, that Obama would do well to keep her on board, and make her yet another offer if a Democratic debacle materializes in November. Some analysts contend Obama should tender the Vice Presidential spot on the 2012 ticket to the Secretary to retain her and to entice back as many disaffected Democrats as possible.

The importance of a continued Clinton presence on Team Obama is plain. She has proved to be a faithful and effective Administration lieutenant, while simultaneously maintaining her political base of support among the powerful constituencies that almost won her the Democratic nomination.

As Secretary of State, she has followed the successful strategy she pursued during her Senate career. She has rolled up her sleeves and delved into the details of her new portfolio with vigor and little fanfare. She has toiled relentlessly to acquire and master the knowledge, the connections and the respect that translate into power. She has operated just below the radar, to assume the role of loyal diplomat, but also just above, to be perceived as the champion, often successfully, of a more muscular foreign policy across the full range of America's top foreign policy concerns: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Russia, China, and North Korea.

Of great relevance to Obama's political future, Clinton also still possesses and controls all the domestic political riches that made her such a formidable presidential candidate. Her support among women voters remains strong, as does her appeal among independents, Clinton admirers and meat-and-potato, middle-class Democrats--of both the liberal and conservative kind--who were never really wowed by Obama's vague and undefined promises of "change." Her low-profile effectiveness as Secretary of State further polishes her resume, and renders her all the more attractive to those who have preferred experience over charisma.

With such levers of power at her disposal, why would Clinton want to pull them for Obama? The answer is evident: Only if it makes political sense for her to do so.

An assessment by Clinton that the Obama bandwagon still carries enough wind to win in 2012 would make sticking around and joining the ticket attractive. So would leaving the Administration altogether after November and throwing off quickly any Obama baggage that might become problematic later on. Either scenario would leave a path open to running for President in 2016, when Clinton would still be politically and presidentially potent at age 69.

Even more intriguing, however, would be a Clinton assessment that Obama is heavily damaged by the November election, and a consequent decision to abandon his Administration to take him on again for the Democratic nomination in 2012.

Such a decision would be risky. Historically, intra-party challenges to an incumbent President have proven catastrophic for the incumbent party. One need only remember the disastrous struggles between Eugene McCarthy and Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford in 1976, and Edward Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in 1980. However, all the failed challengers in these brawls were presidential campaign novices when they mounted their attacks. Hillary Clinton is not.

So pay attention to Hillary. What she does, when she does it, and how she does it will be the most important assessment of the outcome of this November's midterm elections.