“I have a great deal of respect for Hillary Clinton,” O’Malley said. “But for my own part, I have a responsibility to prepare and to address the things that I feel a responsibility to address. . . . To squander this important period of preparation because of horse-race concerns and handicapping concerns is just not a very productive use of energy. . . . Right now, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing — the thought work and the preparation work.”
At the moment, the governor is stuck in an awkward position. He clearly wants to run for the White House in 2016 but probably won’t, several close associates say, if Clinton runs. They expect he would defer to her in part out of loyalty to a friend and political ally — he was the second governor in the country to endorse her 2008 presidential bid — and in part because he would be such a long shot against Clinton. In the interview, O’Malley said a possible Clinton bid is not a factor in his thinking “at this point.”
With less than a year left in office, O’Malley is without a clear destination. Thus far, his political career has moved swiftly — from Baltimore council member, to mayor, to Maryland governor — but now it’s uncertain what his next job will be. If it could be the presidency, he said, there’s no time to waste.
O’Malley would not say how soon he might make up his mind about whether to launch a White House bid. But he said there is “not an infinite window unless you start with 100 percent name recognition, in which case you can wait until the very end. People who don’t have that need a greater amount of lead time for preparation.”
O’Malley would face a steep climb. He has barely registered in early presidential polling, and even in Maryland, Democratic voters preferred Clinton by a 7-to-1 ratio in a Washington Post survey last year. In a Post poll published in the past week, Clinton was the first choice for president for 73 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents nationally.
Moreover, Clinton, a former U.S. senator and former secretary of state, remains the first choice of many Democrats in Maryland.
In a recent interview, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said, “There are people like myself who think it’s Hillary’s time.” U.S. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told Roll Call recently that he considers Clinton the “odds-on favorite of most Democrats if she runs.” Hoyer added that if she doesn’t run, he would support O’Malley, who would make an “excellent” president.
O’Malley has been working diligently to promote himself and boost his prospects. Late last year, he traveled to New Hampshire, where, at a Democratic dinner, he touted his record of fighting crime and drugs in Baltimore and pushing progressive causes at the State House in Annapolis, including the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Cards left on the seats invited Democrats in New Hampshire, the nation’s first presidential primary state, to “stay in touch” with O’Malley, offering the names and phone numbers of two political staffers and ways to follow him on social media. A video posted a few days later on O’Malley’s Web site included some “behind the scenes” footage from the trip that showed him meeting with party leaders and invited fans to “join the movement.”
O’Malley touched down in several other states during the past year, to campaign for Democrats and help them raise money. The trips — to states that included New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and South Carolina — have served as a way to gain national exposure and gain favor with politicians who could be helpful down the road.
In the interview Wednesday, O’Malley said the most important preparation for him for 2016 has been talking to “a lot of smart and experienced people” and building a vision for the country.
“This is not the year for rolling out yard signs or bumper stickers,” O’Malley said. “I’m meeting with people in ways that never really make the paper, and shouldn’t — people that have experience in foreign affairs and foreign policy and national security, all of which is part of a continuing education and refinement of my beliefs and thoughts about how to govern ourselves as a people.”
He characterized most of the meetings as “quiet one-on-one type of things” and declined to cite examples, aside from an encounter with former defense secretary Robert Gates, who was in Maryland recently. Some meetings have taken place in Washington, aides said, and others elsewhere.
O’Malley said he is also making periodic trips to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington that was founded more than a decade ago by John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and now an adviser to President Obama. O’Malley met as recently as in the past week with experts on such issues as immigration, Social Security and the federal deficit.
Carmel Martin, the executive vice president for policy, said the center’s experts are “eager” to help policymakers like O’Malley. “Basically what we do is say: ‘Here’s the issue. Here are the challenges. And here are our proposed solutions,’ ” Martin said.
Several advisers said O’Malley has also done preliminary work on a book, which is almost considered a rite of passage these days for presidential contenders. O’Malley said that he tries to read and write in the mornings and that “you give clarity to your own thoughts by putting them on paper.” But he said, “I have no comment on the book.”
Asked whether he thought he would be a good president, O’Malley said, “Yes, I think I would be, for these times especially.”
He cited his adherence to “a new way of leadership in our country,” including the statistics-driven CityStat and StateStat initiatives he launched in Baltimore and Annapolis, respectively, to measure the performance of government agencies.
“It is very much a way of leadership that’s more collaborative, that’s much more open, that is performance-measured, that is much more interactive, and it is the new way of leadership in the information age,” he said. “I believe in my bones that this is the future.”
O’Malley said his main focus for now is the final legislative session of his tenure as governor, a session in which a proposed increase in Maryland’s minimum wage tops his agenda.
Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic operative who has worked on several presidential campaigns, said there’s no question that Clinton is the dominant figure in the 2016 election cycle right now. But for other prospective candidates, including O’Malley, he said, “that doesn’t mean you should sit around for two years and do nothing. There’s a long history of people who’ve explored running for president who’ve wound up not running.”