What will it take to get Hillary Clinton into a 2012 run?
The answer can be found in the top item on the secretary of state's itinerary this week: Afghanistan.
She is spending a few days in Afghanistan to get a sense of the mounting problems for the U.S. mission there.
And according to some longtime Clinton backers, including one veteran of the Clinton Democratic National Committee, the Afghan war is the catalyst that could start Clinton toward a 2012 run.
The war is going badly. The Taliban has borrowed the fighting tactics — suicide and roadside bombings — that have killed 4,400 Americans in Iraq. The NATO force in Afghanistan is on track to have its first consecutive 100-fatality months in June and July.
American deaths doubled from 150 in 2008 to 300 in 2009 and are on track to double again in 2010.
The latest CBS News poll was bad all around for President Obama — with poor showings on the economy, Obamacare, the Gulf oil spill, presidential empathy, etc.
But while his economic and domestic policies pose the greatest immediate political risk to the president and his party, it's his foreign policy that is the looming problem.
The percent of Americans who think the Afghan war is going badly jumped from 49 percent in May to 62 percent in July.
Obama won plaudits for quickly sacking his Afghan commander after Gen. Stanley McChrystal's indiscreet comments to Rolling Stone. But the article that deep-sixed McChrystal pointed to all of the president's problem points on Afghanistan: that he is seen as an uncertain leader, that troops are weary of the restrictive rules of engagement, that the Afghans are not up to the task of Western-style self-governance in anything like the 10 months remaining in the Obama surge.
Busting McChrystal also meant elevating Gen. David Petraeus. Obama has some obvious misgivings about George W. Bush's favorite general. But the author of the Iraq surge was the only man for the job.
Now, Obama will be under pressure to do the bidding of America's most respected military man.
Most voters support the president's timetable for withdrawal. Some actually favor the idea of a hamstrung surge and others favor getting out of Afghanistan whenever we can. Without the timetable, liberals would be obliged to denounce “endless war.”
The timetable is the last politically useful fiction in Obama's long list of undeliverable promises.
But if Petraeus lets it be known next spring that he needs another 30,000 troops and asks Obama to officially push back the start of the U.S. withdrawal, the president will have to choose whether to consent and shatter his liberal coalition or refuse and lose all those who grudgingly support his war.
That's some choice — agree and lose your base, or refuse and lose your ability to prosecute the war, and, by extension, your credibility as a leader.
Which brings us back to Secretary Clinton.
If Democrats take a pasting this fall, it will be widely seen as a repudiation of Obama. The national economic malaise and independent anger about government overreach have rehabilitated the Clintons' “third way” in Democratic circles.
Regret at having passed over Hillary in 2008 will reach a new high in November. And with Obama leaning on Bill to act as his emissary to the frustrated middle class, the Clintons' reputation will be further restored.
The Democrats rooting for Hillary to knock out Obama in 2012 say she must begin her pivot by early next year. First, she must leave the administration on friendly terms. Then, she can carefully start to express misgivings about Obama's Afghan policies.
Obama thought he would better control Hillary by refusing her the vice presidency. But by exiling her to the State Department, Obama has allowed his rival to shore up the one weak spot on her resume — foreign policy experience.
Obama has painted himself into a corner with his Afghan timetable. And come next spring, Clinton friends could start the chorus of pleas for her to try again to break the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
The message: “Only Hillary can bring the troops home.”
That would leave Clinton able to bring together doves who want the war over by any means necessary and the growing number who support Vice President Biden's strategy of maintaining a small, deadly force in the region but abandoning full-scale nation-building in the Obama style.
That would have some nice symmetry to it.
Obama won the Democratic nomination by pummeling Hillary with her initial support for the Iraq war.
She might like to return the favor on Afghanistan.
Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com