11/04/2013 02:25 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hillary Clinton: The Great Uniter?

Can Hillary Clinton run for president as the Great Uniter -- someone who can overcome the country's crippling partisan gridlock? Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have been sounding the theme of partisan compromise and reconciliation in recent weeks.

"We have simply got to have more people who are willing to reach across the aisle and say, 'I'm ready to work with you to build a better future,'" Bill Clinton said in a Kentucky campaign video.

Since Ronald Reagan, the country has had four presidents in a row who promised to bring the country together. They all failed.

When he accepted the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, the first President Bush said, "I want a kinder, gentler nation." He was fired after one term, partly because conservatives in his own party abandoned him.

Clinton labeled himself a "new Democrat" and an advocate for "the third way." Republicans impeached him.

The second President Bush pledged to be "a uniter, not a divider." He took a country that was deeply divided and divided it even more.

Barack Obama first came to prominence with his 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech when he said, "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America. There's the United States of America." Obama, too, failed. What went wrong?

For Democrats, the answer is simple: Republicans. From the outset, Republicans in Congress refused to work with President Obama. He reached out his hand to them and they smacked it down. Because of racism? That may have played a role, but the fierce opposition to Obama was broader than race. President Obama has led a New America to power, a coalition that includes blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, Jews, single mothers, working women, young people, educated professionals, and the growing number of unchurched Americans. To conservatives, it's not their America. They see an alien movement taking over the country, which is why they constantly challenge Obama's legitimacy.

What really set off conservatives -- within weeks of Obama's taking office in 2009 -- were his policies: a huge economic stimulus plan, government bailouts, the mortgage rescue, tax hikes for the wealthy and -- the ultimate outrage -- health care reform.

In every election, you have to figure out what voters want that they are not getting from the incumbent. After Lyndon Johnson, voters wanted order: Richard Nixon. After Nixon, voters wanted morality: Jimmy Carter. After Carter, voters wanted leadership: Ronald Reagan. After the first President Bush, voters wanted empathy: Bill Clinton.

But those themes were all adopted by the opposition party. Hillary Clinton is a Democrat. If she offers any contrast with President Obama, it will look like a rebuke: "He divided the country. I will unite us." It's unusual for a candidate from the president's own party to run on a platform of change. Could it work?

There are reasons to suspect it could not. For one, the name Clinton is not usually associated with bipartisanship. Remember "the Clinton wars" of the 1990s? The hatred conservatives feel for Obama today is not much different from the Clinton-hatred of the 1990s.

And yet... President Clinton's policies were often moderate and bipartisan. His signature achievements -- welfare reform, free trade, a balanced budget -- all got more support from Republicans than Democrats.

Another problem if Hillary tries to run as a peacemaker: that's not who she was in 2008. She was a fighter. "When I say I will fight for you, I will. It's what I've always done," she declared during the Democratic primaries. Sen. Clinton proved herself a fighter by never giving up. She stayed in the race until the very end. That brought her more admiration than resentment from her fellow Democrats.

And yet... the images of both Clintons have been transformed during the Obama years. They are far less polarizing than they used to be. And far more popular. In last week's Economist-YouGov poll, Hillary Clinton's personal favorability was far higher than that of other potential 2016 contenders.

The same poll asked Americans to rate the "greatness" of presidents over the past 100 years. Bill Clinton rated near the top, just behind John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Forty-nine percent called Clinton a "great" or "near great" president. Only 29 percent felt the same way about Obama. Americans associate the name "Clinton" with good times (in every sense).

Will Democrats be offended if Hillary Clinton offers herself as a contrast with President Obama? Not if she does it carefully and respectfully. She was, after all, a good soldier for the party, loyally serving as Obama's secretary of state for four years. In their new tell-all, Double Down, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin suggest that President Obama may have considered replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton as his running mate in 2012.

Will progressives go for a Democrat who offers conciliation and compromise? Right now, Hillary is far ahead when Democrats are asked about their preference for the Democratic nomination. She may not have to worry about primary challengers. Elizabeth Warren? She just signed a letter with 16 other Democratic senators urging Hillary to run.

A message of conciliation and compromise may be just what voters are looking for in 2016. Only it's supposed to come from the opposition party. That may be difficult for Republicans, given the growing influence of the Tea Party. Reconciliation and compromise are not their cup of tea. Many conservatives believe they went along with moderation when the party nominated John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. And look what happened.

That's the genius of the new Clinton strategy. If Republicans won't offer the kind of change voters want, she will.