WASHINGTON — As we consider the return of the House of Clinton, we may be witnessing the start of the House of Obama.
According to a survey in November, first lady Michelle Obama would beat incumbent Republican Mark Kirk, 51 per cent to 40 per cent, in a hypothetical matchup for senator from Illinois in 2016. The first lady has an approval rating of 60 per cent in the state.
Not that Kirk has anything to worry about. When asked last spring if she would ever run for president, Obama laughed and said, "Absolutely not." One reason might be to avoid stupid reporter tricks. Another might be that she has shown no disposition toward the dark arts other than to support — reluctantly at first, as she worried aloud about exposing her young daughters to Washington — her husband’s chosen profession.
True, Obama is a lawyer like her Democratic predecessor in the White House, and like Hillary Clinton she doesn’t stay home and bake cookies. She gave a rip-snorting speech at the Democratic convention in September. But she has stuck to traditional first lady activities. No health-care initiatives or cabinet meetings for her. She is planting a garden, slimming down children and helping military families.
The very question, however, shows just how dynastic politics have become. The British royal family, and the breathless response to the pregnancy of Kate Middleton, has nothing on Americans. We talk about the pernicious influence of money in politics. But when it comes to pre-emptively shutting out the competition, a family name may be more valuable than money.
Who is going to take a good look at Joe Schmoe from Delaware when state Attorney General Beau Biden decides to run for the Senate? We survived only one session without a Kennedy in Congress: Joe Kennedy III, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and the son of former Representative Joe Kennedy II, will take office in January.
Yet polls find the public largely indifferent to having the same family pass high office from one to another. If former Florida governor Jeb Bush weren’t so sensible, and had his brother George W. not been such an extraordinarily bad president, Jeb would probably have run in 2008. Then we could have faced the prospect of a Clinton (Hillary) or a Bush (Jeb) succeeding a Bush (George W.) who’d succeeded a Clinton (Bill) who’d succeeded a Bush (George H.W.).
Obama (Barack) may be the only break we get from this dynastic do-si-do. In all likelihood, there is a Clinton or a Bush on the horizon. The 2016 campaign is frozen until Hillary announces her intentions, and Jeb’s lock on everyone’s attention is almost as strong. There are lots of governors and senators who should be on the short list for the presidency in 2016, but I’m afraid I can’t quite remember their names right now.
We’re used to sons and brothers entering politics more than wives. Hillary would be the first American to follow in the shoes of Imelda Marcos. And Jeb would make history as well, the second of two sons and the first brother to be elected president. The Bushes would be the first family to have three presidents.
Is all this evidence of a lack of imagination? Or the strength of good branding, in politics as elsewhere? Chelsea Clinton grew up in the White House, a searing experience that she seems to be over. She shunned public life at first, but she has gradually emerged as a TV reporter and a board member of her father’s foundation and of the Clinton Global Initiative. She married the son of two former members of Congress.
And we are already talking about the fourth generation. On the Republican side, there’s George P. Bush, son of Jeb, nephew of George, grandson of George H.W. and great-grandson of Prescott Bush, the senator from Connecticut who started this political dynasty in the 1950s. George P. grew up in Florida but went to college in Texas, where he has just filed papers to run for state office.
Hillary Clinton was unthinkable as a senator until the Monica Lewinsky scandal: She was generally an unpopular first lady until she stood by her man. As she basked in the thanks of a nation grateful for getting it through impeachment, her popularity shot up, and she left the White House a year early to run for senator from New York, a state she’d only visited as a tourist. Hillary may be the only woman in history to be rewarded for a sexual favour she did not dispense.
Of course, the Obama White House is not the Clinton White House, and Michelle Obama is not a likely candidate for office. Hillary Clinton is, however, and everything that helped her 12 years ago could hurt her four years from now. As a former senator and secretary of state, she is a global figure in her own right. No more reflected power, or pity, for her.
Now Secretary Clinton will go back to the future, with her international life disappearing and her domestic one returning as she moves to be home alone with Bill. There will be no more throwing back shots with reporters, dancing till the wee hours, letting herself go because she’s a rock star. She will be in competition for attention with, and once again responsible for, the actions of her husband — as he will be with her.
The Big Dog brought her to the dance. She may not be able to live with him, but she can’t win without him. That’s the downside of a dynasty: As quickly as it can build you up, it can just as easily bring you down.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.