When Will Clinton Resign? Place Your Bets, Please.

When will Hillary Clinton resign as Secretary of State?  The question is prompted by yesterday’s exchange with my colleague Bert Johnson re: the difference between nomination and “resignation” politics (and I apologize to Bert for being unnecessarily argumentative in response to his typically astute insights).  Some of you may recall that on Jan. 19, during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, Jill Biden blurted out that her husband Joe was given the choice of being either Vice President or the Secretary of State in the Obama administration (see video here).  According to Jill, Joe Biden took the Vice Presidency not because it was his preferred choice, but in deference to his wife who did not want Joe spending the next four years away from his family while globetrotting as the nation’s chief diplomat. Joe Biden, who was sitting next to Jill, laughed good-naturedly but did not deny the story. Almost immediately, however, the Obama team released a statement denying that the Secretary of State position was ever formally offered to Biden.

What is going on here?  One explanation is that after years of living together, Jill has absorbed Joe’s foot-in-mouth disease and that, as with her husband, every thought that enters her mind exits her mouth.  But I suspect she’s smarter than that. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that she knew exactly what she was doing in releasing this information one day before the inauguration.  The statement was the first salvo in the inevitable jockeying for position that takes place at the start of every administration. In one respect, Vice Presidents are at a distinct disadvantage in this battle because they have no constitutional or statutory-based portfolio (other than breaking ties in the Senate); their entire influence is predicated on perceptions regarding the strength of their relationship with the President, and his willingness to delegate responsibilities to the Vice President. Secretaries of State, on the other hand, sit astride key action-forcing channels – particularly the daily flow of messages to and from overseas embassies – that necessitate their involvement, at least nominally, in some aspects of the foreign policy process. Certainly it guarantees them media coverage. This struggle is particularly pronounced in the Obama administration, however, because Biden’s perceived strength is foreign policy – the same portfolio Clinton claims as Secretary of State. Jill’s public statement, then, can be viewed as a not-so-veiled assertion that her husband’s personal ties to Obama trump Clinton’s claim as Secretary of State to run foreign policy; it was Biden, not Clinton, who was Obama’s first choice to be Secretary of State.

Note that this struggle transcends personalities – it is built into the institutional fabric of the modern presidency.   By most accounts, Clinton and Biden got along quite well in the Senate. No matter – the history of previous presidencies suggests they will clash repeatedly in the coming months.  Eventually, because Vice Presidents do not resign, Clinton will be forced to.  Recall the previous Vice Presidents in the modern era who were chosen by Presidents largely on the basis of their foreign policy expertise. Al Haig, the self-proclaimed “vicar” of foreign policy during the Reagan administration, resigned early in Reagan’s first term, in part because Vice President George H. W. Bush was selected over Haig to head the president’s “crisis management” team. More recently, of course, Secretary of State Colin Powell clashed repeatedly with Vice President Dick Cheney regarding foreign policy issues. Powell, too, eventually resigned, while Cheney stayed on.

In an earlier post (see here) I traced the diminishment of the Secretary of State’s position since World War II. That diminishment, I argued, is driven by the rise of competing actors, particularly the national security adviser, that have eroded the State Department’s traditional preeminence as the face of American diplomacy. But when the Vice President also claims a seat at the foreign policy table, the jockeying to sit at the president’s right hand as the primary source of foreign policy advice becomes even more intense.

So, if history repeats itself, when will Clinton resign? Let’s look at the numbers. There have been 65 previous secretaries of state who, on average, served 3.3 years before leaving office (the unit of analysis here is years, not months). Of course, this average is somewhat misleading, since it ignores the fact that the available time in office differs, depending on the length of the presidential term, date of appointment, etc.  To simplify the analysis, and to make it most relevant, let us look only at the 18 post-FDR “modern” Secretaries beginning with James Byrnes, listed in the table below.

Name (President) Dates in Office Tenure (years)
James Byrnes (Truman) 7.3.45-1.21.47 1.5
George Marshall (Truman) 1.22.47-1.20.49 2
Dean Acheson (Truman) 1.21.49-1.20-53 4
John Foster Dulles (Eisenhower) 1.20.53-4.22.59 6.25
Christian Herter (Eisenhower) 4.23.59-1.20.61 1.75
Dean Rusk (JFK-LBJ) 1.20.61-1.20.69 8
William Rogers (Nixon) 1.20.69-9.3.73 4.67
Henry Kissinger (Nixon-Ford) 9.21.73-1.20.77 3.33
Cyrus Vance (Carter) 1.20.77-4.27.80 3.33
Ed Muskie (Carter) 4.28.80-1.20.81 .67
Al Haig (Reagan) 1.22.81-7.5.82 1.5
George Schultz (Reagan) 7.16.82-1.20.89 6.5
James Baker (Bush I) 1.22.89-8.23.92 3.67
Lawrence Eagleburger (Bush I) 12.8.92-1.20.93 .33
Warren Christopher (Clinton) 1.20.93-1.17.97 4
Madeleine Albright (Clinton) 1.23.97-1.19.01 4
Colin Powell (Bush II) 1.20.01-1.26.05 4
Condi Rice (Bush II) 1.26.05-1.20.09 4

The average tenure of this group is 3.5 years. Only one – Dean Rusk – served for the entire length of the president’s time in office. (Actually, Rusk’s 8-year tenure from 1961-69 spanned two presidencies: JFK’s and LBJ’s). Nine – half of the total – served at least a full four-year presidential term, if not more.  Of the eight appointed at the start of the president’s first term (I don’t count the Truman, Johnson or Ford presidencies here), five made it through the entire first term.

This recap suggests to me that we should place the over/under for Clinton’s time in office at four years.  To make it more interesting, I’ll offer a free “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt to the person who predicts to the month – without going over – Clinton’s resignation date.  The betting remains open for one week.  Even if you don’t want to predict the actual date, let me know if you take the over or the under, and why.

Who said political science can’t be fun?


  1. One important thing to consider here is: does Clinton leave because of supply side or demand side factors? In other words, is she forced out, or does she leave due to other opportunities?

  2. Since I lost my bet with Jack Goodman, I bet she would not be Sec. of State, I need a redeeming win. I’ll go with January,2013!

  3. I agree, Bert. One possibility: If Obama stumbles and becomes the next Jimmy Carter, she might decide to challenge him in the primaries, in which case she’d have to leave soon after the 2010 midterm elections. Alternatively, if she still has the fire in the belly and wants to take her turn in 2016, she’d probably jump ship after the 2014 midterms. In terms of opportunities I don’t see much else that trumps Sec. of State except the chance for the presidency – do you? Unless she opts to make money in the private sector.

    Fred, is she pushed out in 2013, or is she going voluntarily?

  4. I should add, in reference to Bert’s remarks, that I can’t think of a single modern Secretary of State who left voluntarily without some prodding by the President, unless it was to write their memoirs.

  5. Matt, I think Clinton will become incredibly frustrated at foggy bottom, especially if she cannot have a big win in the middle east. And there are a lot of strong diplomats like Mitchell and Ross who will compete for the credit if anything good happens. (I am reminded of Reagan’s comment to the effect that there is no end to what you can accomplish, if you dont care who gets credit for it. Hillary will want credit for every success.)

    So I will take the under. Sometime before the 2010 mid term elections.

  6. Depends most on whether Barack Obama’s first term is hist first — or his last. I can’t envision a scenario in which Clinton challenges Obama, unless he has to face down scandals that his ethics stance suggests he won’t have.

    It is true that as an inner-circle cabinet member, Clinton will have all the dirt she needs on President Obama when the time comes. But the reverse is also true.

    Clinton understands she will be a stronger presidential contender when she has secured a reputation nationally as elder stateswoman — rather than as a politician with a familiar family name. The first truly popular female diplomat is a reputation worth having.

    My guess is that the Secretary of State position will also keep her too busy (if she plans to use the office’s powers responsibly) to also plot a serious campaign. How many diplomats have made a serious bid for the presidency? Colin Powell didn’t. I guess you could count GHWB. Before that … Adlai Stevenson?

    My prediction? She’ll resign at the end of term one, and (if President Obama is re-elected) will take a domestic cabinet post next.

    Here’s a longer-term prediction: A 2016 Clinton-Petraeus ticket.

    Now, what are the odds we’ll see Petraeus in the cabinet in 2012?

  7. Matt, I am sure you noted Biden’s first major foreign policy statement from the administration in Germany on Russia yesterday. Interesting that this wasn’t made by Clinton. Do you suppose her nose is out of joint already?

    I’ll stick with my under forecast for her resignation.

    PS I wear a size medium T-shirt.


  8. Jack – I saw that article and reacted exactly as you did! But don’t start measuring the t-shirt quite yet…

  9. OK, as a loyal reader over the months I’ll make a prediction. If Clinton does not want to return to the Senate and only has eyes for the presidency as a higher office than her current position, I’ll say that she completes the first term. She might get bored and marginalized by the second term, and so will offer her resignation and let Obama replace her. I am going to guess confirmation trouble for the replacement such that the new Secretary will not be confirmed until May 2013.

    Any thoughts on who she might be replaced with if she resigned in a political environment similar to today’s? Mitchell? Maine Senators are a reliable bunch…

  10. Just for the sake of argument, I say she ends up bearing the brunt of the frustration after fallout from a Middle East somewhat resistant to change. Jan 2011

  11. I’ll go with January 2013. Her experience will mirror Powell’s. I polled my family, and my mom (although not a regular reader of the blog) is in for November 2010, just after the midterms.

  12. I still don’t think she’s the right man or woman for the job so this may go quicker than people think… I’ll think she’ll be out by the State of the Union 2010.

  13. Professor Dickinson,

    I’ve been waiting a bit to make a bet, so hopefully you’ll let a late contender jump in. I’m going to take the under. If Obama wins a second election, she’ll jump to maybe contend for presidency. So, imho that eliminates the over aspect. Now, to pin down a month is a bit more difficult. I certainly understand the Jan 2013 arguments, but I think it’ll be over. I’m guessing she doesn’t want to be too close to an election, go out the window with Nov 2010. Its a tough spot to be in seeing as though Biden has a strong FP aspect and everyone knows her husband’s name draws ooohhh and aahhhh from the middle east (even if its just from the women there!) So anything she accomplishes there will I believe be credited back to her husband’s name. With all of that said, I think the thing that will ultimately get to her is not having the power she wants. You’ve already addressed the decline in Sec of State power post FDR and I completely agree. I believe that decline will continue with Obama’s popularity throughout the world and thus an increase in presidential and VP appearances and negoations abroad. None-the-less I’m going to say that the real over under should have been at the midterm elections. I’ll take the under there and give her to about July 2010.

    We won’t get into shirt size yet. But I have a feeling that she just isn’t going to be happy with her spot.

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