Associated Press
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

This is a pretty dismal time for President Obama.

He campaigned on a platform to change Washington, but as he himself admitted in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the atmosphere there is worse since he became president.

His popularity is at an all-time low. It is no surprise that some Republicans want to give him the heave-ho in 2012. He is not exactly wowing independents, and even some Democrats, especially African-Americans, are grumbling about his performance.

In the liberal New York Times, Maureen Dowd complains: "He got the job by blaming Washington. But once you're in the White House you are Washington. It's like the plumber who came to fix the sink waiting for the sink to fix itself."

In the conservative Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan opines: "He has made big mistakes ... his baseline political assumptions have proved incorrect, his calculations have turned out to be erroneous, his big decisions have turned to dust ... he thought the stimulus would turn the economy around. It didn't."

On the foreign policy front, his successful decision to go after Osama bin Laden was gutsy. But throughout the Arab spring he was indecisive. On Syria he procrastinated before declaring that the murderous Bashar Assad should step down. On Libya he led, as one White House aide famously described it, "from behind." We should all be grateful that no American lives were lost. But how many Libyan freedom fighters' lives could have been saved by earlier U.S. forcefulness?

If the unemployment figures are nearly as bad this time next year as they are now, President Obama's re-election to a second term in the White House may be problematic.

If his defeat seems inevitable, will Democrats contemplate an alternative candidate? If so, who?

There is already some whispering. The name "Hillary Clinton" crosses lips. Despite a flurry of denials and her protestations that she will retire at the end of 2012, the issue has been raised by reporters at the White House press briefing and on cable TV networks such as Fox.

In the curious way we elect our presidents — so bemusing to many foreigners — Hillary Clinton got more of the peoples' vote than Obama in the last Democratic run-off: 18,223,120 to his 18,011,877. Neither candidate received enough delegates from state primary races and caucuses to achieve a majority at the party convention, but superdelegate votes pushed Obama over the top.

Some problems would attend a Clinton campaign. Clinton would obviously need to resign as Secretary of State. But she has already said she will leave that position at the end of a first Obama term.

Would it be unseemly to campaign against a Democratic president in whose cabinet she served? Well, Jon Huntsman, a Republican who served as Obama's ambassador to China, seems to have rationalized his readiness to campaign against Obama. He argues that he served the office of the president, not necessarily Obama the incumbent. Mrs. Clinton has been a loyal foreign minister to President Obama, although privately pressing for more fervor on a number of issues.

Clinton's main problem would be a late start in a presidential campaign already under way. It is one in which Obama is intent on raising a war chest of record size.

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She would be at a disadvantage in staffing and funding. The primaries determine which delegates are pledged to vote for which candidates at the convention, and they usually do. But they are not legally bound to vote for those candidates. Theoretically a dark horse could emerge at the Democratic convention if Obama's ratings were so abysmal his re-election was deemed impossible.

However implausible a Hillary candidacy might seem, it would be surprising if the Clintons had not wistfully pondered the possibility of Hillary yet winning the presidency that once eluded her so narrowly.

John Hughes teaches journalism at Brigham Young University. He is a former editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, and a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column.