RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Another former senator who did make the switch from Capitol Hill to the Cabinet is Hillary Clinton, and today is her last day as secretary of state. She leaves the job with sky-high approval ratings, and there's already a superPAC established to urge her to run for president in 2016.
NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on what's next for Hillary Clinton.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: She's one of the most famous women in the world, and as she leaves office today, she's also the most popular politician in the country.
DEE DEE MYERS: And, I would argue, the most formidable, with the possible exception of President Obama.
LIASSON: That's Dee Dee Myers, former White House press secretary for Hillary's husband, President Bill Clinton. It's hard to remember that just four years ago, Hillary Clinton was rejected by her own party, her approval ratings in the mid-40s. There's no question that being out of politics for four years has enhanced her political reputation. And over time, says Myers, she has simply worn down her critics.
MYERS: The way she got there was just by doing the hard work. She focused on the task at hand, and people came along.
LIASSON: Clinton has won bipartisan praise, even though she leaves behind no Clinton peace treaty or Clinton arms accords. And she's also been the subject of gushing tributes, including an affectionate appearance on "60 Minutes" with her former rival and current boss President Obama, who once famously described as likeable enough.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How would you characterize your relationship right now?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I consider Hillary a strong friend.
SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: I mean, very warm, close.
LIASSON: And at the tail end of her tenure, there was a display of one of Hillary Clinton's career trademarks: sitting on the hot seat. This time, it was congressional hearings on Benghazi, where she suffered not a scratch, including in this tense exchange with Republican Senator Ron Johnson.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONGRESSIONAL HEARING)
SENATOR RON JOHNSON: Again, again, we were misled that there were supposedly protests, and then something sprang out of that, an assault sprang out of that. And that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact. And the American people could have known that within days, and they didn't know that.
CLINTON: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?
LIASSON: Johnson was the last in a line of men who've come out on the wrong end of a tangle with Clinton. All that just reinforces the notion that Clinton, who has taken so much incoming fire in the past is now fireproof. Dee Dee Myers.
MYERS: Clearly, one of the things that's benefited her is just years of experience, being in the trenches day after day. She's not intimidated by a senator from Wisconsin, right? That, to her, is just another day at the office. She controls the tempo of the game now in any room that she's in, and it's an impressive thing to observe.
LIASSON: If Secretary Clinton does decide to run for president in four years - and the speculation about that is everywhere - she would be 69 by Election Day. But maybe the first woman nominee has to be older in order to accumulate the kind of experience that would shut down any questions about whether she was qualified. Democratic strategist Geoff Garin has worked for Clinton in the past.
GEOFF GARIN: While anybody who is supportive of Hillary Clinton learned in 2007 and 2008 never to talk about inevitability, she is, in fact, better positioned heading in 2016 than she was heading into the 2008 presidential cycle, that she is a more admired, less-polarizing figure than she was in 2008. The political prospects are better than they were when she last ran for president.
LIASSON: Other Democrats say she'd be a field-clearing frontrunner. It's hard to imagine any Democrat on the scene today who could beat her in a primary. Of course, not even her closest friends know what she'll decide to do. As for Clinton herself, she hasn't ruled a run in or out. She talked about her future with NPR's Michele Kelemen earlier this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
CLINTON: I don't see myself getting back into politics. I want to be involved in philanthropy, advocacy, working on issues like women and girls that I care deeply about. I want to write and speak. I want to work with my husband and my daughter on our mutual foundation interests. So I'm going to have my hands full. I don't quite know how I'm going to adjust to not having a schedule yet.
LIASSON: And she says she wants to catch up on 20 years of sleep deprivation. But sooner or later, the most popular politician in the United States will have to make a choice whether or not to run for president. And through her long career, Clinton has always opted for the path that would let her wield the most institutional power to make the biggest impact. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.
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