Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The institutional apparatus of the Democratic coalition is shifting gears as party strategists, outside groups and the people who finance campaigns prepare for what they believe is an inevitable 2016 presidential bid by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As President Obama struggles with the debacle of his Affordable Care Act rollout and fights to regain his political standing, his party’s machinery is pivoting to the next White House campaign. Concrete steps are being taken to wage a general-election contest with Clinton as the presumed nominee.

All of this may seem premature, and in many ways it is. Obama’s presidency, weak or strong, has three years left. Clinton hasn’t said definitively whether she will run in 2016. If she does, she must prove herself as a candidate — and there are enough memories of the mistakes that she, and particularly her team, made when she ran in 2008 to make any Democrat nervous.

Still, the signs of activity, and the implications of those efforts, speak to Clinton’s unique position in the Democratic Party and to the understanding that the sophistication of modern politics — especially on the scale of a presidential campaign — requires far more lead time and preparation than it did a generation ago.

A formal Clinton campaign would lie well into the future, although informal discussions among key advisers have been going on for months. But the outside entities that are part of any presidential bid are making themselves into promoters and protectors of Candidate Clinton.

“There’s an amazing amount of outside activity, but more important, structural formation,” said one prominent Democratic strategist with a long history in presidential campaigns, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid . “There’s a real apparatus out there.”

The latest evidence came last week when BuzzFeed and, later, other news organizations reported that Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, was nearing agreement to join the super PAC Priorities USA. Priorities was formed to back Obama in 2012 and is now becoming the pro-Clinton super PAC for 2016.

Also expected to play a significant role is John Podesta, who was White House chief of staff during president Bill Clinton’s administration. Priorities USA struggled to raise money for a good part of the 2012 cycle. With Podesta and Messina aboard, that’s not likely to be a problem for the pro-Clinton PAC.

The Biden factor

Messina’s likely move is notable for another reason. It signals to other prospective Democratic candidates, particularly Vice President Biden, that even if Obama remains neutral in the Democratic nomination contest, key members of his political team will be working for Clinton.

This is not out of any disloyalty to Biden. Obama advisers are moving to Clinton because they are convinced that the vice president will not run if she does. In fact, Biden has told some key Democrats that he understands there would not be room for him if Clinton were a candidate (although some of his allies think there might be). He will do all he can to maintain his viability as a candidate as the party awaits Clinton’s decision.

The reshaping of Priorities USA is only one such transformation underway. American Bridge 21st Century, the political action committee formed as an outside rapid-response and opposition research operation, is becoming Clinton’s shield against Republican attacks, which have already begun.

American Bridge will be working on behalf of congressional and senatorial candidates, but the group announced that it will create a new entity called Correct the Record to defend Democratic presidential candidates in 2016 and go after their GOP rivals, with Clinton the likely beneficiary. Recently, American Bridge tapped Burns Strider, who is close to both Clintons, as a vice president of and senior adviser to Correct the Record.

Also last week came an announcement that billionaire George Soros will invest an additional $2.5 million in Catalist, a cutting-edge data “utility” that has built voter lists and helped many liberal organizations manage the huge amounts of data that are now a prerequisite for any campaign.

Catalist is not a pro-Clinton organization per se, although one of its founders was Harold Ickes, a longtime Clinton confidant. Its role has mainly been to work with the entire progressive community. But the group’s resources could help a Clinton campaign jump-start the effort to build the kind of technology infrastructure that Obama and his team had years to work on between 2008 and 2012.

Beyond that, Clinton can count on support from Emily’s List, which works for the election of Democrats who support abortion rights and will help tap into the wish of many female voters to see a woman in the White House.

All of that comes in addition to the work of the group Ready for Hillary, a political action committee formed to encourage Clinton to run in 2016 that has morphed into an operation stocked with several Clinton loyalists. The group is trying to harvest names, e-mail addresses and other details about potential supporters, aided by several key members of Obama’s 2012 voter-mobilization team.

Inevitability is a liability

All of this outside activity makes some Clinton loyalists jittery. They view it as something that again creates a sense of inevitability around a possible Clinton candidacy, which turned out to be a major liability for her in 2008. “The one thing you don’t want to be in the Democratic primary process is you don’t want to be inevitable,” one supporter said.

A second worry is what Obama’s health-care mess could do to a Clinton run. If Obama and his team don’t win significantly more public support for the new law — beyond making the Web site more navigable — the result could prove crippling for Clinton. And if 2016 becomes a change election, based in part on revulsion about the health-care problems, Clinton is hardly the ideal candidate to wage that campaign. The outside groups that are gearing up cannot do much about that.

If Clinton doesn’t run, the machinery can easily shift to support the eventual Democratic nominee. And regardless of what happens in 2016, some of these groups will be working for Democrats running in 2014. But at this point, to a degree that is unprecedented, Democrats are preparing for the 2016 general election.

Clinton will not get a free pass to the nomination, but key strategists, including some who opposed her in 2008, see her as more strongly positioned in the party this time. That opens up the possibility that Democrats will not have a truly competitive nomination battle, a prospect that these strategists consider a major advantage in a general-election battle they think will be extremely tough.

“We should be able to prepare for a general election,” said an Obama ally who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely. “It’s not like a reelection, but it’s not like a normal open election.” This Democrat argued that the sooner preparations get underway, the better. “We can’t fritter away time,” he said.

For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to