Hillary Clinton and the question, ‘Why run?’

Ben Margot, File/Associated Press - FILE - This April 8, 2014 file photo shows former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaking in San Francisco. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book on her time as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state will be released on June 10, her publisher says. Publisher Simon & Schuster said Wednesday that Clinton would share “candid reflections about key moments during her time as Secretary Ben Margot, File/Associated Press

What was most interesting about Hillary Clinton's statement at a marketing conference in San Francisco Tuesday was not that she was thinking of running for president in 2016. That well-established idea is hardly news at this point.

What was striking from Clinton's comments was that she said it's not hard to know if you want to run, or if you can win — the hard question she's asking herself is why. "Why would you want to do this, and what can you offer that could make a difference?"

In saying that, Clinton seems to make clear that she knows she wants to run and that she believes she can win. But it also implies that she's still trying to come to terms with the "vision thing": the unique perspective Americans expect their presidents to have about which direction they want to inspire the country to go next.

She's right, of course, that it's the tougher question and the more important one to be asking herself. That's what defines someone as a leader, as opposed to just a politician or an elected official. Whether she's genuinely wrestling with that question, or simply knows that it reinforces a presidential image as she continues to deflect questions about 2016, it's the right place to be putting her focus.

She also doesn't want to get tripped up on it if she's eventually asked. As John Dickerson explained over at Slate, Clinton is trying to avoid becoming a candidate who fails to have an answer for why she wants to run, as happened to Ted Kennedy in 1979. It's important for any candidate seeking a leadership position, but it will be particularly important for Clinton — who, like Kennedy, will have to prove she's more than just a famous name.

Yet the biggest reason of all that the "why" question matters so much for Clinton is that she is a woman. Consider this Gallup poll from March, which asked Americans about the most positive reasons for Clinton's presidency. The top answer, selected by 18 percent of respondents, was that she would be the first woman president. Just nine percent said it would be her foreign policy experience. Three percent said it would be that she is capable, competent and qualified. Two percent said it would be her intelligence. And another two percent said it would be because Bill Clinton would return to the White House and could act as her adviser.

Fair or not, Clinton will be defined by her gender unless she puts forth a vision that goes beyond that issue. She may be a powerful voice for women's rights, and women's issues will almost certainly be a big part of her platform if she indeed chooses to run. But like any woman in a leadership position, she surely wants to — in fact, needs to — be known not just as the first woman in the job, but as someone capable of inspiring people toward important goals who just happens to be a woman.

Read also:

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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