If you believe Jonathan Alter, there is a good chance this could happen next year if Obama’s re-election prospects look questionable. His argument is simple. Obama, Biden and Clinton all get along well and like each other. Obama doesn’t want to make a change, but they all agree that the threat of a total conservative take over all three branches is unacceptable. They will “do what it takes” to win, even if that means what Alter calls a “switcheroo.”
Back in 2008 Joe Biden seriously lobbied to become Secretary of State. He’s always had a strong interest in foreign policy, and probably had the inside track for the job before Obama offered him the VP slot. To move from VP to Secretary of State would be something Biden could honestly embrace as a positive career move. Rather than presiding over the Senate and making speeches at ceremonial events, he’d be in the rough and tumble world of foreign policy. The Secretary of State position is substantively more important than the Vice Presidency.
Hillary Clinton has already said she plans to retire after the end of Obama’s first term. The Secretary of State position is especially demanding, and she has been an active and effective top diplomat. Moving to Vice President would be the one way she’d stay active in the Administration. First, it puts her a step closer to the Presidency and makes her the odds on favorite in 2016 should Obama win or lose. In 2012 she turns 65 meaning she’d be 69 if she ran in 2016. It would probably be her last shot.
Second, it keeps her close to the action without the kind of pace and demands her current job has. This would allow her more freedom to expand her pursuits yet still be in the center of big decisions. If Obama loses no one could blame her or the Clintons for any lack of loyalty. If Obama wins, the odds of her becoming the first woman President increase.
What would it do to the campaign dynamic? For Obama it could shore up his liberal base and his appeal with women voters. Women put Obama over the top in 2008 and recent polls show his support in that demographic group is slipping. If the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney he’ll probably draw a lot of female voters from Obama (Rick Perry or Herman Cain not so many). Hillary’s supporters, some of whom remain lukewarm to Obama, would be energized even if they remain a bit bitter.
That’s really what Vice Presidential choices are usually about – you try to keep a party united and avoid the kind of collapse that Jimmy Carter suffered late in his campaign. Carter looked in position to eek out a victory against Reagan in 1980 but a bad debate performance coupled with news that the Iranian hostage situation had no end in sight coming days before the election pushed tepid Democrats to Reagan. Clinton as VP might be a firewall against that. Even if Obama loses, the Democrats need to avoid the Senate and House loses that gave the GOP de facto control of all branches of government in the early eighties. The Democrats lost 33 House seats that year and held a majority — but the conservative southern Democrats sided with Reagan and gave him a working majority. Hillary as VP candidate might be the best bet at keeping the Senate in Democratic hands.
Beyond keeping the base faithful, the choice of a VP candidate usually doesn’t matter much. Arguably choosing Sarah Palin hurt John McCain, however, and when McGovern dumped Eagleton in 1972 that hurt him. This suggests that a candidate can be hurt by a VP choice if it reflects poorly on the candidate’s judgment. When Roosevelt dumped Wallace in favor of Truman in 1944 that didn’t hurt; Ford was probably helped by replacing Rockefeller with Dole in 1976 (though he narrowly lost the election).
So the big question for Obama is whether or not pulling a switcheroo would make him appear weak or be exercising poor judgment? The latter would have to be no; very few people would think that Hillary would be a bad Vice President and the fact that Biden would be given his dream job means he won’t be seen as throwing Joe “under the bus.” But the Republicans would paint that as an “act of desperation” due to Obama’s “failed Presidency.” He needs Hillary because he’s “in over his head.”
That would be a political problem for Obama, but the people most likely to believe that rhetoric are those who won’t vote for Obama anyway — many of whom still don’t like the Clintons. Obama could, of course, turn the argument around. “Given the depth of this crisis, I feel we need to make sure we have the best personnel where they are needed. The politically easy thing to do would be to avoid criticism and keep things as they are. I am not afraid to be criticized for doing what is best for the country.”
Praising Hillary profusely, he could argue that her work as Secretary of State has helped guide the US through a dangerous period of draw downs in Iraq, a policy to turn Afghanistan into a success, and on going counter terrorism efforts which netted many top al qaeda targets including Osama Bin Laden. Now her talents need to be harnessed to address on going economic difficulties. Biden’s been good in that regard, but his passion is foreign policy. The subtext would be clear: Bill Clinton’s hand would be present, and we all remember the budget surpluses and low unemployment during his term.
The more I think of it, the more the move makes sense. If Obama’s team is reasonably confident about the election, they might fear this would muck things up. President Obama clearly would rather not be seen as being ‘rescued’ by the Clintons, but he’s not the type to let pride get in the way of making a smart decision. It would certainly bring excitement to the Democratic campaign, especially if this were announced in mid-summer.
At the very least it would bring the bitter 2008 primary feud full circle. Next year should be entertaining in any event.