Mrs Clinton, Hillary or Obama’s former Secretary of State? The enigma behind the 2016 presidential race

5 Aug 2014


Race and gender. Any sociologist or political scientist would warn against distinguishing between the two. Intersectionality, whereby race, gender, or additional social identities depend on one another, has come to be accepted as a normative framework in academic circles. Given the unprecedented triumph of Barrack Obama in 2008, as the first African-American to win the Presidency, it would be more than appropriate if the first female president takes office in 2016.


In spite of the obvious failings of the Obama presidency, the former Illinois Senator has certainly achieved symbolic change. How influential this ‘soft’ and somewhat superficial change will be for 39 million African Americans is for future generations and Obama’s successors to decide. 

This is where the problem lies. The initial ‘hope’ and revitalisation which Obama restored to the Presidency (following George W. Bush’s questionable electoral legitimacy) could further dissipate. The front runner for the Democrat candidacy is no less a figure than Hillary Clinton. As Obama’s former Secretary of State, as one of the most active First Ladies, and as a 21st-century feminist, Mrs Clinton seems the ideal successor. An indefatigable determinism is slowly gaining pace. Whilst the Republicans remain divided, Democrats can take comfort in Hillary’s familiar face. Indeed, just before leaving her post as Secretary of State, Hillary was reaching public approval rates of 65% (December 2012). This familiarity can prove comforting to a nation undecided on the legacy Obama will leave behind. However, it is precisely Mrs Clinton’s unparalleled experience as an insider in the White House, which could prove disastrous for the Democrats in 2016.

If Hillary’s victory in 2016 is won by default (a lack of competitive opposition), this presidential election could prove even more historic than 2008. In the absence of serious competition, Hillary’s presidency risks inheriting the increasingly vacuous rhetoric of Obama. As the first female President, Hillary risks falling into the same trap which consumed Obama. An emphasis on symbolic change can win elections; it can by no means - ex post - preserve reputations. 

What are the ideological underpinnings which lie behind the ‘Ready for Hillary’ campaign? How do they differ from Obama’s? It is this latter question which will prove crucial to Mrs Clinton’s success at the polls. Indeed, that part of the electorate which can see beyond the specious superficiality of Obama’s promised symbolic change will prove to be Hillary’s greatest adversaries. In 2008, ‘Clinton was so stifled and badly political that she rarely seemed human’. As Monica Potts has noted, Clinton’s began to re-define herself when Obama named her Secretary of State. Despite losing the race to be the 2008 Democrat Presidential candidate, Hillary benefited from Obama’s initial surge of popularity. The latter’s momentous triumph meant Mrs Clinton could stay in the public eye whilst keeping a certain distance from Washington. It was the best of both worlds; personal popularity without total responsibility. 

Indeed, it is a poor reflection of Clinton’s aptitude for the Presidency that the US electorate ‘seem to like her most when she’s not quite the top dog’. “I’m not backing Hillary Clinton,” declared the feminist writer Courtney Martin in a 2008 Glamour blog, “and that’s at least in part because she reminds me of being scolded by my mother.” However, according to Potts, Hillary is now the ‘grandmother’, the potential Democrat voters want to hang out with, ‘the kind of maturing hippie who might smoke pot with them on the back porch’.

Whether Hillary can maintain this self-projection and inherit Obama’s diverse urban, young coalition depends on her ability to re-create the Clinton brand when she is on top. The Democrats without Obama seems ominous at best. President Hillary, minus a departed Barack, seems at best a debilitated figure. With this prediction in mind, the determinism of commentary with regard to 2016 needs to be cautiously rejected. An alternative framework, where victory is not simply equated with a 66 year old if not experienced woman, is needed if 2016 is going to act as a further catalysts for potentially seismic social change. 

By Michael Tavares


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