The treadmill of American democracy being what it is, 468 members of Congress are already worrying about the midterm elections in 2014, and a tiny cadre of hyper-ambitious pols is beginning the tortuous four-year slog toward the White House.

Republicans, whose primary contests earlier this year amounted to a long-running gong show, are quarrelling over a choice many of them consider existential: Must the party find a moderate next time, in order to win over more ethnic and women voters, or nominate an unapologetic, steadfast, red-meat conservative?

One way or the other, the GOP has contenders, but no superstar.

Democrats, meanwhile, have no such angst. Not only is there is no real internal argument over which way the party should tilt, it has one figure whose mere nod would thrill millions of Americans right now.

Those would be the same Americans who watched, and cheered, and wept, as Hillary Clinton took the podium on June 7, 2008, and declared, as she conceded her party's nomination to Barack Obama, that "although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it."

Gaffe free

Since that day, there has been considerable energy expended debating whether Clinton would have done better than Obama in the White House over these past four years.

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The most famous woman on the planet? (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Clinton herself, though, simply picked up the pieces and moved on without a single public recrimination, as she advised her supporters to do in that speech. And by almost any measure, she's grown in power and stature as a result.

By accepting Obama's offer to become his secretary of state, she chose a path that allowed her to look as close to presidential as you can look without the title, yet at the same time keep a judicious distance from partisan politics.

As required by U.S. law, Clinton was not present at her party's convention in September; when Barack Obama accepted his second nomination, she was on official business in Brunei.

Since 2009, she has not raised funds, distributed endorsements, or otherwise engaged in Washington's widely hated slanging match.

Essentially, she travelled the world gaffe-free for four years, pushing her country's interests and democratic ideals, with special care given to gender equality.

She has even managed to avoid taint, at least so far, for the apparently targeted killings of four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September. 

It's probably an understatement to say Clinton has become an icon to women worldwide; certainly, she is among the most famous women alive, if not the most famous.

The hair thing

Here in the U.S., her approval rating is a remarkable 70 per cent.

Granted, part of that is because she's perceived as above the partisan wars, but still it's an impressive figure, especially given the fact that just a few years ago, Clinton was widely derided as far too "polarizing" to be able to govern effectively.

All of which leaves her in a most enviable position: Whether to say yes to 2016.

Officially, as she prepares to relinquish her job at State, she is saying no.

"I have ruled it out," she told the Wall Street Journal recently, referring to a presidential bid. "It's important for me to step off this incredibly high wire I've been on, to take stock of the rest of my life."

In recent years, she's provoked all sorts of speculation about her intentions by gradually changing her hair from the crisp chignon she wore while striving for power to a shoulder-length, more motherly look.

But she remains a Clinton. And when it comes to U.S. presidential politics, any denial short of "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected" is hedging.

So far, Clinton has not repeated William Tecumseh Sherman's famously categorical denial. Why would she, with the stars aligned the way they are?

The credentials

If the cyclical laws of economics hold, there is a good chance America will be enjoying a strong economic recovery, if not a boom, by the time the next election comes around, and it will have happened under a Democratic administration.

By 2016, Americans should also be fully addicted to their newest entitlement, universal health care, with Hillary Clinton having been its most prominent early advocate during her time as first lady in the early 1990s.

On defence and national security, she's a hawk, something that has earned her friends in the military and even praise from some Republicans, particularly those with whom she served in the U.S. Senate.

And the biggest demographic of all — 52 per cent of the population — would probably look kindly on the idea of electing America's first woman president.

On that score, the Republicans are utterly outclassed.

In 2008, Sarah Palin put herself forward as the woman who would pick up where Hillary left off. Clinton became her country's chief diplomat; Palin abandoned the governorship of Alaska to star in a reality show.

It is true that South Carolina's Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is telegenic, popular and effective, but she's no Clinton, either.

The fact is, Clinton will walk away from the Obama cabinet, probably sometime in the next few weeks, as a colossus in her party.

Her fundraising power, should she choose to exercise it, is beyond question. And to top it all off, she's married to a man who has just proven himself the most potent presidential stand-in in American electoral politics.

(How better to set the stage for your wife's return than play such a key role in Obama's re-election?)

In October, 2016, just before the next presidential election, Hillary Clinton will turn 69 — exactly the same age as Ronald Reagan when he won in 1980, and just four years older than Mitt Romney was this time.

For all her talk of letting go and relaxing, one suspects she still dreams of smashing right through that ceiling she cracked four years ago, and may yet do just that.