Barack Obama may have been less dynamic a president than his supporters hoped, but the simple fact of his taking office - the first Black American to do so - showed that it is possible, though still difficult, to topple the predominance of white, middle-aged men. So what kind of president does American need now? More firsts? A woman? A Catholic? A Latino? Or a return to the white middle-aged men?
A recent Gallup poll ranked the biggest problems facing Americans right now. Top of the list came complaints about government leadership, closely followed by the economy, then unemployment, healthcare and immigration. So, obviously, America needs a president who can reform government, boost the economy, enhance employment prospects and tackle the shame of healthcare. Really though, when the full list of concerns is taken into account - the gap between rich and poor, moral decline, lack of respect for people and so on - along with the popularity of some of the more grass-roots-focussed candidates of both sides, what Americans are really crying out for is someone who cares enough about ordinary people to tackle the slide in their living standards, expectations and belief in their country, and effective enough to make that care stick.
And yes, we all know that a week is a long time in politics, and any attempt to predict the contenders in the race may well look amusingly quaint by this time next year, but now is a good time to take a look at who may be lining up for the job.
Of the two main contenders - Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton - neither can present themselves to voters as a novelty. Hillary will be 69 on Election Day and has been a national figure for a quarter century - but she can draw on what is now a proven track record, her consistency, her ability to get things done, a cool head and resilience. The days when she stood by Bill as he insisted that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman," are so far behind her now that, when Monica Lewinski published a piece in Vanity Fair last year about her affair with Clinton, saying "it's time to burn the beret and bury the blue dress," Hillary barely seemed to feel the ripples.
The two women may always be connected in the public eye, but Hillary has successfully established herself as a crusading feminist - "I believe the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century" - an engaged social thinker - "There are no other people's children" - and a smart, witty operator - "If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle".
As First Lady, her major initiative, the Clinton health care plan, bombed, but she bounced back, acting as an effective Senator for New York and Secretary of State. In the last election, she gave Obama a good run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
However, her very longevity could count against her. She may, by now, lack the element of surprise, and the dazzle of novelty. The positives are name recognition, the impression of 'two-for-one' with Bill at her side, and the fact that she holds the edge among independent and young voters, ethnic minorities and single women. However, there are many scandals; she is the only First Lady to have been subpoenaed, and testified before a federal grand jury over the Whitewater controversy, even though she was never charged with wrongdoing. The Wikileaks revelation in November 2010 that the US State Department had ordered US diplomats to spy on UN officials in ways that contravened their human rights damaged her too (although she denied having issued the order, despite her name at the bottom of the cable). Then there is the perception of too-close connections with Wall Street and Big Business, the lack of a clear 'message' and, currently, a fear that she is standing still while Jeb Bush is already hot on the trail.
On the Republican side, top of the pack is the former two-time governor of Florida, John Ellis Bush. Known as Jeb, he is the younger brother of George W and second son of George Snr and Barbara. He is particularly well-liked by the Hispanic community, in part thanks to his Mexican-born wife, Columba Garnica Gallo, who he met while studying in Mexico - "I saw her face, and I fell in love. I can't explain it, but that's the way it is," is how he put it - and married when he was just 21. She tends to avoid the media, saying, "Jeb is a natural-born politician, but I'm not a political person. At home, we're a common, ordinary couple."
The couple have three children, two of whom have had minor brushes with the law. Noelle was accused of trying to fraudulently obtain the prescription drug Xanax in 2002, and later charged for hiding crack cocaine in her shoe. In 2005, son Jebby was arrested for being drunk in public and resisting arrest. Columba herself had a brush with controversy in 1999 when she came back from Paris having spent $19,000 on clothes and jewellery, and declared just $500 to US customs.
There are seven years between Jeb and Dubya, and the brothers aren't, apparently, close. George W has been vocal in his support, but also claims he'll be "the last one to know" should Jeb run. Like Dubya, Jeb is deeply religious, brought up to politics and a love of sport. Known to be punctual and impatient, conservative on issues like abortion and gun rights, but more open on areas like education and immigration. In a recent speech he described illegal immigration as "an act of love," something risked for the sake of families. He's also far less outgoing and gregarious than Dubya, without the kind of easy chat and ready quips that made him such a favourite of pol corrs. He is more intellectual and more thoughtful - leading one commentator to use a Wizard of Oz analogy: 'one has no heart, the other no brain.'
During his eight years as Florida governor, Bush was credited with improvements in the environment, as well as reforming the education system but for most of us he is known for election night in 2000. When it looked as if Al Gore had won Florida, an emotional Jeb hugged George and apologized for letting him down. He was premature. "Back from the ashes," he quipped as more returns came in. Just like Hillary, name-recognition is a big positive for Jeb - another Bush, although it sounds like a life-sentence to some, is an emotive rallying cry to others. That said, there is plenty of Bush apathy, or worse, among even Republicans. Possible family reluctance is another drawback; one friend said that his top considerations for a 2016 decision "are Columba, one, two and three."
According to one commentator, the "only person standing between the Democrats and an uncontested Hillary Clinton nomination," is Elizabeth Warren, the new darling of the progressives, even though she has constantly said she won't run. Warren is a former Harvard Law School professor specializing in bankruptcy, now Senator from Massachusetts. She is the Democratic Party's most forceful advocate for left-wing causes, everything from cleaning up Wall Street to shoring up the bottom of the income ladder. As such, she is believed to "hear the voices no one else hears," according to a Doonesbury strip. Time magazine has called her a "New Sheriff of Wall Street."
She describes her background thus: "I came up the hard way . . . out of a hard-working middle class family in an America that created opportunities for kids like me." She was waiting tables aged 13, married at 19, and only started law school when her first child was aged two. Husband Bruce Mann is also a Law Professor at Harvard and a legal historian. The couple married six months after Elizabeth's divorce from her first husband.
Working for her is the perception that she cares about ordinary people and understands their grievances - there are growing whispers of comparison with Bobby Kennedy - and her ability to explain complex economic matters very simply. On the Jon Stewart Show recently she did such a good job of this that he blurted out "I know your husband is backstage, but I just want to kiss you". Against that is her lack of proven track record, and the feeling that she is too folksy - her anecdotes are often punctuated by domestic details like the frying of pork chops and potty-training.
Could it be third time lucky for Democratic Vice-President Joe Biden? He went for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008, but both times dropped out early in the race. The first Catholic to be Vice-President, he has shown himself very able in his dealings with Republicans in Congress, a born networker, and with the kind of grassroots appeal that Obama conspicuously lacks; The Onion satirise him affectionately as 'Diamond' Joe Biden. However, he is also known for tactlessness and indiscretion - in 2007 he described Barack Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
From an Irish-Catholic family, Biden was elected to the US Senate in 1972 aged 29. Before he took office, his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident, leaving him the single father of two young sons. The fact of the tragedy, as well as Biden's ability to talk about it in terms that ordinary Americans can relate to, emphasise the feeling that he is 'one of us.' At a 9/11 commemoration, he said, "No matter how many anniversaries you experience, for at least an instant, the terror of that moment returns . . . where you feel like you're being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest."
Charming, energetic, with a sense of humour, his gaffes have toned down recently and he seems to be transforming himself into something more polished, more contained, without losing his appeal. And it seems to be working; in a recent episode of the US comedy Parks and Recreation, Leslie, played by Amy Poehler, declared that her ideal man would "have the brain of George Clooney and the body of Joe Biden."
He is married to Jill, blonde and soignée, a teacher, described by Michelle Obama as "an incredibly passionate, focused woman," who turned down his proposal of marriage five times: "Because here were these little boys who had lost their mom and their sister, and I had to make sure that this marriage was going to work. Because I just couldn't have their hearts broken again."
When Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley was two, his parents made him a birthday cake with 'Martin For President 2004' iced onto it. By their standards, he's 10 years late to the running. A two-term governor of Maryland, he has won some significant battles during his time: the end of the death penalty, allowing same-sex marriage, banning certain guns and making gun licensing requirements stricter.
Aged 52, O'Malley became an internet sensation last year when photos were distributed of him having an Ursula Andress moment, emerging from the freezing water after a 'polar bear plunge' and showing off a very credible six-pack. He fronts a rock band, O'Malley's March, who play versions of Irish classics, and covers of the Saw Doctors. Married to Katie O'Malley, a Baltimore City District Court judge and daughter of a former State Attorney general. She is a fan of the band - they began dating three years after they first met, when a mutual friend took her to see him play.
The real wild card on the Democrat side would be current Secretary of State, John Kerry, who ran against George W Bush in 2004. Variously described as boring or pompous, with a dash of recklessness, last week he brought James Taylor with him to Paris, to sing Carole King's You've Got A Friend for French president François Hollande, after America committed a major diplomatic faux-pas by failing to send a high-level representative to the rallies following the Charlie Hebdo killings.
Junior United States Senator from Texas, Republican Ted Cruz, Cuban American, is one of just three Latinos in the Senate, and very popular with the Tea Party faction. A clear and persuasive speaker, he denies the existence of man-made climate change, opposes comprehensive immigration reform, rejects marriage equality, and rejects outright every detail of Obamacare; in fact, he was central to shutting down the government over that. Just 44, he is one of the youngest contenders, described by the New Yorker last June as, "the far right's most formidable advocate". Like Sarah Palin, he is dismissive of the power base in Washington, saying at a recent rally: "I spent all week in Washington, DC, and it's great to be back in America."
A fan of Sun Tzu's Art of War, he likes to quote the line about a battle being won by "choosing the terrain on which it will be fought." He is married to Heidi Nelson Cruz, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, who he met when they were both working on George W Bush's presidential campaign. Smart and very glamorous, she has described the dynamic thus: "Ted is very much a visionary . . . he does what needs to be done, not what everybody wants him to do." Of herself, she said: "I want to make sure that everybody is comfortable" and "talking to each other."
With the heavy jowls and down-turned eyes of a basset hound, Chris Christie, 52, is no JFK, but, the Republican New Jersey governor - emotional, combative - has been one of the most popular politicians in the country. Passionate, unashamedly blue collar - he plays Bruce Springsteen songs without irony at meetings - and seemingly driven by conviction rather than polls, he presents himself as a crusader and reformer. Rather than be sidetracked by the more common Tea Party Republican hysteria, Christie sticks to the small stuff that weighs big: wasteful public spending, cronyism, jobs, homes, schools.
Slimmer by around 100lb since his gastric band surgery, he is known for his aggressive, punchy style with opponents, reporters, and even the public. Some of the insults he has hurled around include: "stupid," "jerk," "ignoramuses," "thugs," "losers," and "numb-nuts." However, his isn't an aggression out of control, he knows what he's doing, once describing himself as a "moody, passive-aggressive, demanding, outspoken, unreasonable, fat bully."
The bullying goes down well when Christie is making a big deal of hunting down corruption in high office, as he has done so successfully that at one point New Jersey politics was like the Salem witch trials, but there is a flip side. The traffic chaos known as 'Bridgegate' cost him dear, even though a major investigation forced several of his aides out, but failed to find Christie complicit. He is married to his college sweetheart, Mary Pat, a Wall Street investment banker.
Junior United States Senator for Kentucky, Republican Rand Paul is the son of a former presidential candidate, Ron Paul. An ophthalmologist before he became a senator, Paul is seen as a highly effective fund-raiser, a senator with brave and original ideas, some of which - particularly on race and crime - are unpopular with the conservatives within his party, while his foreign policy views (he has called for a cancellation of all foreign aid), alarm more moderate thinkers. However, he has demonstrated an ability to learn and change, and his appeal to younger voters and ability to articulate the disaffection of grass-roots Republicans, is powerful stuff.
His wife, Kelley Ashby Rand, described by Vogue as his "secret asset" should he choose to run, is believed to be the single most important factor in his decision.
The wild cards on the Republican side are 37-year-old Tom Cotton, new senator from Arkansas and darling of the right wing, who won a bronze star fighting in Iraq. An unapologetic neocon hawk, he recently denounced what he described as Obama's "all carrot and no stick" approach to Iranian nuclear power. Then there is the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Deeply religious, conservative and likable, Huckabee criticised Michelle Obama in his new book God, Gun, Grits and Gravy, for being friendly with Beyonce and Jay-Zee: "With the First Lady so concerned about making sure her daughters' bellies don't ingest unhealthy food," he wrote, "how can she let their brains ingest obnoxious and toxic mental poison in the form of song lyrics?"
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