By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 6:18 PM
A tantalizing notion has gained steam around Washington in recent months: President Obama will toss Vice President Biden off the ticket in 2012 and replace him with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The most recent perpetrator of the idea was The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, who said in a CNN interview Tuesday that the possibility is "on the table." The logic, according to Woodward and many others - mainly pundits - is that Obama could energize the Democratic Party in 2012 and install an heir apparent for 2016 if he engineered a job swap between Biden and Clinton, thereby making the most of his former rival's stratospheric approval ratings.
But there's a problem with this scenario: Despite all the chatter, no one has offered any evidence to suggest it's true. The White House, not surprisingly, flat-out denies it.
"There's absolutely nothing to it," senior adviser David Axelrod said Tuesday night. "The president is blessed to have a spectacular vice president and an outstanding secretary of state. They're both doing great work, and he wants to keep them on the job."
Advisers to Clinton said the same, and another Obama adviser called the idea "nuts."
Woodward, in an e-mail Wednesday, said he had discussions about Clinton's future with her advisers in the course of researching his latest book. One theory, floated by former Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn, held that Clinton would take the secretary of State job as a possible gateway to do the Oval Office down the road, Woodward said.
"When I raised this with the top Clinton aides while working on the book, they got quite upset and denied that political considerations had anything to do with her decision to accept the job" of secretary of State, Woodward said. "But when I pointed out that a good deal of her weight and clout around the world was because many see her as a future president, they largely withdrew their objections.
"It is tricky for her because that is true," he said. "So she has to deny any future political ambitions, but she can't do it too much. Her weight in the administration also has something to do with the fact that many see her as a future presidential candidate or president."
As for any current discussions about a ticket swap, Woodward said, "I said, 'It is on the table,' because any legitimate vote-getting strategy is always on the table in politics."
Where, then, is this fantastical rumor coming from?
A student of the Obama-Clinton relationship could trace its roots to the summer of 2008, when Clinton supporters lobbied for Obama to pick his rival in the Democratic primary as his running mate and he, after considering it, declined. Then, after the president chose Clinton to be secretary of state, people in her orbit started musing aloud that she could shift into a different role down the line, although Clinton never went near that idea.
But it wasn't until this past summer that the Clinton-Biden swap narrative started to fully swirl. As Obama's approval ratings sank, a variety of luminaries started promoting the idea of the ultimate "staff shake-up," in some cases claiming to have inside knowledge that it was being discussed.
In June, for example, Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that Obama appoint Clinton to replace Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when he leaves the Pentagon next year. Then, Gelb wrote, Obama "could drop another bombshell and announce Mrs. Clinton as his vice-presidential running mate."
"He would wait until the last minute to see just how badly he needed her on the ticket, but the choice would have obvious advantages," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
A few days later, WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan came to a similar conclusion after declaring the Obama presidency "snakebit."
"Among Democrats - and others - when the talk turns to the presidency, it turns more and more to Hillary Clinton," she wrote. " 'We may have made a mistake. She would have been better.' Sooner or later the secretary of state is going to come under fairly consistent pressure to begin to consider 2012."
Shortly thereafter, Sally Quinn opened an opinion piece in The Washington Post with: "Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden should switch jobs. Really."
Through it all, White House officials rolled their eyes and insisted it was meaningless chatter generated by reporters with a vested interest in ginning up drama. In September, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass introduced Clinton at a major address by comparing her to former vice president John C. Calhoun - saying he "couldn't help notice the speculation in some parts that Secretary Clinton might just find herself trading places with Vice President Biden, becoming the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2012." Clinton just sat there and shook her head.
But is it really such a bad story for any of the parties involved, even Biden (who has by all accounts a strong relationship with Obama and is apparently unmoved by the speculation)?
For the White House, it would certainly beat another recent plot line: Democrats would just as soon see Clinton at the top of the ticket in 2012. A Gallup poll released last week showed Obama beating Clinton among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, but not exactly in a runaway - 52 percent to 37 percent. A separate poll showed Clinton outperforming Obama in Illinois, with 61 percent saying they viewed her favorably, compared with 52 percent for the president.
Still, even Clinton's biggest advocates are not suggesting that trading places is even under discussion. "I'd be stunned if there's anything to it," Democratic strategist James Carville said Tuesday. "Anything is possible in politics. But I don't know of anything beyond speculation, and I really doubt it's anything."
It is worth noting that similar howls are heard around Washington every four to eight years or so. Remember the strategy to remove Dan Quayle as President George H.W. Bush's running mate in 1992? Or the notion - pronounced with such certainty in some quarters - that President George W. Bush would have to kick Vice President Richard B. Cheney off the ticket in 2004 in order to win reelection?
firstname.lastname@example.org Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.