When does “no” not really mean no? When politicians say it. Reporters understand that if the circumstances are right, the answer can always change.
On Thursday, NBC News’s Savannah Guthrie asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the rumor du jour, that President Barack Obama might ask Clinton to swap jobs with Vice President Joe Biden. Clinton said, “I do not think it’s even in the realm of possibility and in large measure because I think Vice President Biden has done an amazingly good job.”
Of course that won’t end speculation about a Great Switcheroo, and not just because it falls short of “Shermanesque,” the standard General William Tecumseh Sherman set in 1884 when he said, “I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.”
When Bob Woodward first claimed on CNN in late 2010 that such a switch was “on the table,” I was skeptical. In a profile of Clinton I wrote for Vanity Fair this year, I doubted her denials about running for president in 2016, but thought that a switch with Biden was outlandish.
Then I heard from an old Chicago friend of Obama’s that Woodward was right. Now, with the economy worse and the president as the self-described underdog, I’d say the odds are long -- but it’s definitely not impossible.
What It Takes
To understand why the idea of Clinton as Obama’s vice presidential candidate and Biden as secretary of state in a second Obama term isn’t just another far-fetched scenario cooked up by bored pundits, consider the DNA of the players.
Obama, Biden and Clinton would not want to do this. But like most politicians, they are genetically disposed to do “what it takes,” to quote the title of Richard Ben Cramer’s seminal campaign book, which included several chapters on Biden. “What It Takes,” published nearly 20 years ago, focused on the character traits necessary to survive a grueling campaign. The concept also applies to the decisions necessary for victory.
Obama, Biden and Clinton are on good terms with each other, and they view the stakes -- a possible conservative takeover of all three branches of government -- as extremely high.
If it’s clear that Democrats need to do something dramatic to avoid losing the White House, the Switcheroo will happen.
A Compelling Argument
Obama would swallow his pride and try to use wit to disarm attacks that he’s acting desperate, cynical and weak. He would admit publicly that he needs the help of both Clintons to restore the good economic times of the 1990s. The Democrats’ message would be: “Vote for Obama if you want the Clinton economy back. Vote for Romney if you want the Bush economy back.” That’s a compelling enough argument to make an imperiled president do something he would hate -- let Bill Clinton drag him over the finish line.
Biden would reluctantly agree because his consolation prize is a job he can truthfully argue he has coveted for 20 years. It would leave him less humiliated than incumbent vice presidents like Henry Wallace, whom Franklin D. Roosevelt dumped from the ticket in favor of Harry Truman in 1944, and Nelson Rockefeller, booted by Gerald Ford to make room for Bob Dole in 1976.
Clinton would say yes because she is dutiful to a fault and because everyone asked to be on the ticket for the last 40 years has accepted, with the exception of Colin Powell turning down Dole in 1996 and John McCain rebuffing John Kerry in 2004 (that’s how liberal McCain was then).
Job switches of this kind are hardly unprecedented. In 1985, Ronald Reagan arranged for Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and White House Chief of Staff James Baker to swap positions. In 1992, Baker reluctantly resigned as secretary of state and returned to the White House as George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff in an unsuccessful effort to save Bush’s foundering re-election campaign. All of these guys do what it takes.
The biggest reason for a Switcheroo would be if the gender gap that has proved essential to Democrats in recent elections were suddenly to close, sending Obama (whose current approval rating is a paltry 40 percent) even further south in the polls. With white men already lost (Obama got only 41 percent of them in 2008; 9 percent in Alabama), a historic ticket with an African-American and a woman would have little downside.
The president’s more immediate political problem is with independents. We don’t know yet how much Clinton’s presence on the ticket might help with them (especially women) or with traditional Democrats. During the 2008 primaries, Clinton showed more strength than Obama among blue-collar voters in states like Pennsylvania, which is essential to the president’s re-election. (Although Biden, born in Scranton, is also popular there.)
In a larger sense, the move would lend excitement to what will inevitably be a sour and dispiriting campaign. Imagine the unemployment rate doesn’t budge and Obama goes into the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in early September trailing by six points with a mere eight weeks until Election Day. The Switcheroo may be his only shot.
Neither the Obama campaign nor anyone else I know of has done any polling on this, and even strong public support for the idea right now wouldn’t matter much to the White House. This is a decision for next summer, when the picture will be a lot clearer. In the meantime, don’t let anyone tell you it’s out of the question.
(Jonathan Alter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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