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Is Secretary of State a Stepping Stone?

This is a high-risk, high-reward opportunity for Hillary Clinton. If she accepts, and serves out six or eight years in a popular Obama administration, then she is practically guaranteed the Presidency in 2016 … However, there is always a chance she will be replaced, or that Obama will not be a popular President. In either of these scenarios, taking the job might make it the last job Hillary Clinton has in politics.

That commentary is from Chris Bowers at Open Left. I tend to agree with the gist of what Chris has to say — were Clinton to accept Obama’s offer to become Secretary of State, her political fate would be tied fairly strongly to the success or failure of his administration.

The fundamental question I am concerned with, however, is slightly different. If Hillary Clinton’s goal is to become President of the United States in 2016, would she improve her odds by accepting the Secretary of State position? The answer to this question is less clear.

It was once very common for Secretaries of State to ascend to the Presidency. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan and Martin Van Buren had at one point served as Secretary of State before they served as President; three of the six (Madison, Monroe, Adams) held the Secretary of State position at the time of their election.

However, following Buchanan’s election in 1856, we have now gone more than 150 years since a Secretary of State became President. There are a couple of good reasons for the change. The first is the increase in the stature of the Vice Presidency dating from the mid-20th century onward. No sitting Vice President ran for President between 1860 and 1960, but since then four have (Nixon, Humphrey, Bush 41, Gore). Whereas Secretaries of States were once seen as the natural successors to the Presidency, now that honor falls to Vice Presidents.

Barack Obama’s situation is somewhat unusual in that he selected a Vice President in Joe Biden who, because of his age, probably will not have Presidential aspirations in 2016. Thus, Secretary of State might again serve the role of housing the President’s designated successor. Of course, it is also possible that Joe Biden will not be Obama’s VP selection when he runs for re-election in 2012, which could make things very awkward for Clinton.

The other reason why Secretaries of States rarely run for President is because of the increasing demands of the campaign cycle, which can now occupy as many as two years of a candidate’s time. Voters might find it off-putting for a Secretary of State to be barnstorming in Iowa when it is supposed to be her duty to serve her president and her country. It is more likely that Clinton would serve as Secretary of State for somewhere between four and six years, but would have vacated the position by the time she ran for President. (Frankly, this is likely to be the case whether or not she’d want to run for President, as nobody since George Schultz in 1982-1989 has served more than four consecutive years as Secretary of State).

Still, we haven’t really addressed our question: If Hillary Clinton’s goal is to become President of the United States in 2016, would she improve her odds by accepting the Secretary of State position?

My answer to this is a qualified ‘no’. If the Obama administration is perceived as successful, that will likely make Clinton’s road to the White House easier. But this is probably true whether or not she serves in Obama’s Cabinet. If the Democratic brand is strong in 2016, Clinton will have little trouble riding that wave and presenting herself as a safe, trusted, capital-D Democrat (which is essentially her brand to begin with), almost no matter what she had spent her time doing.

On the other hand, it would probably be easier for Clinton to extricate herself from an unpopular Obama had she avoided serving in his Cabinet. This is particularly the case if Obama loses in 2012, in which case Democrats would inevitably want to go in a “new” direction in 2016. Clinton would find it easier to present herself as that alternative if, say, she served as Governor of New York, rather than as a member of Obama’s cabinet.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.