Right now, aides and friends say, Hillary Rodham Clinton's plan looks like this: Exit the State Department shortly after Inauguration Day, and then seclude herself to rest and reflect on what she wants to do for the next few years. Those who have invited her for 2013 engagements have been told not to even ask again until April or May.
She and her husband would like to buy a house in the Hamptons or upstate New York, several friends said, and Hillary Clinton will finally have more time for everyday activities like exercise (last summer between world crises, she was squeezing in 6 a.m. sessions at a pool with a trainer).
She is likely to use her husband's foundation as at least a temporary perch, several former aides said, and she has been mulling a new book - not a painful examination of her failed 2008 presidential bid, as she once proposed, but a more upbeat look at her time as secretary of state.
For the moment, Clinton may appear to be a figure of nearly limitless possibility, and her name has come up for prestigious jobs: president of Yale University, head of George Soros' foundation.
But being Hillary Clinton is never a simple matter, and her next few years are less a blank check than an equation with multiple variables. Her status is singular but complicated: half an ex-presidential partnership, a woman at the peak of her influence who will soon find herself without portfolio, and an instant presidential front-runner (a title that did not work out well last time).
Clinton may find that her freedom comes with one huge constraint. The more serious she is about 2016, the less she can do - no frank, seen-it-all memoir; no clients, commissions or controversial positions that could prove problematic. She will be under heavy scrutiny even by Clinton standards, discovering what it means to be a supposedly private citizen in the age of Twitter. With the election four years away - a political eon - she will have to tend and protect her popularity, and she may find herself in a cushy kind of limbo, unable to make many decisions about her life until she makes the big one about another White House try.
"If you're thinking about running for president, does that affect everything else?" asked former Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, who once agonized over the same choice, and whose son Gov. Andrew Cuomo may find his own prospects shaped by what Clinton decides. "Yes. Once you make your decision, everything clears up."
Still, Clinton faces some immediate choices, which nearly two dozen current and former aides, friends and donors described :
Should she team up with her husband again?
Last summer, Bill Clinton expressed doubt about whether his wife would join forces with him at the foundation that bears his name. "She has to decide what's best for her," he said in an interview. "It might be better for her and she might have a bigger impact if she has a separate operation."
The question is a fraught one. The climactic moment of Hillary Clinton's career came in 2000, when after years of supporting her husband's campaigns and jobs, she struck out as a solo artist. Would rejoining his team be a step backward? Many aides said no: "She's revered and admired as her own person," said Lissa Muscatine, her longtime adviser.
Still, some aides said it was difficult to imagine Hillary Clinton comfortable at the foundation in its current form. It is organized entirely around the former president, the endowment is small, and even supporters acknowledge that it lacks the organization of, say, the Gates Foundation. The group has made strides lately, with a new director of fundraising and more involvement from Chelsea Clinton.
Hillary Clinton could do a trial run there, "testing the structure," as one former aide put it. That way, she would have a home for the longtime advisers who are expected to stay with her. And by joining her husband's operation, she could save the considerable time, money and effort it would take to start her own - which might be disbanded anyway if she runs in 2016.
Should she do what she wants or what makes the most political sense?
Of all of the issues Clinton has worked on over the years, the one nearest her heart is improving the status of women and children around the world. As first lady of Arkansas, she brought Dr. Muhammad Yunus, later a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to set up a microlending program there. She turned her tenure as secretary of state into a sustained argument that women's welfare is central to security and economic stability, championing projects like milk cooperatives in Malawi and support networks for self-employed women in India. Now her desire is to be "a professional advocate," as her daughter put it to a reporter.
Ann Lewis, a longtime adviser, echoed that. "In the last four years she has seen firsthand the difference she can make for women and girls," she said. But even if Clinton returns full time to her activist feminist roots, it is not yet clear exactly where she would begin: the topic is diffuse by its very nature. Nor is a campaign for, say, safer cookstoves in China the obvious way to win over voters in Iowa - and her work could touch on issues, including reproductive health, that could prove sensitive.
But aides say that Clinton drew a lesson from her 2008 run: she believes that the country approves of her, and of female candidates in general, when they appear to be serving others rather than seeking power out of personal ambition. By that logic, Clinton's interest in helping poor women around the world would not hurt her politically in 2016 and might add to her current politician-above-politics luster.
Her aides also agree that she was too cautious in the early months of her last campaign and hurt herself by hiding her real passions. Regardless of whether she runs, telling Clinton not to focus on women would be like "telling Al Gore not to talk about the environment," said Paul Begala, a longtime adviser to Bill Clinton. (Gore did not always emphasize his knowledge on the subject in 2000, which later looked unwise.)
What is the most dignified way for her to make money?
Being a Clinton is expensive, and when the former secretary leaves office, she'll want staff and the ability to travel on private planes, friends say. The Clintons - who own expensive homes in Washington and Chappaqua, N.Y. - love renting in the Hamptons during the summer, according to friends, and buying their own home there could easily run well into the seven figures. Though friends say Hillary Clinton could easily make a lot of money at a law firm, advising foreign countries on geopolitical risk, or at an investment bank or a private equity firm, none of those pursuits would be likely to wear well in a presidential campaign.
Instead, Clinton is expected to take on lucrative speaking engagements - maybe even joint speeches with her husband, which could command record prices - and write one or more books. After she lost in 2008, she was on the cusp of signing with her old publishing house, Simon & Schuster, for a book about her failed bid, for slightly less than the $8 million advance she earned for her 2003 memoir, "Living History," according to someone involved in the negotiations. In meetings to discuss the book, that person recalled, she was quite critical of Barack Obama. But then he drafted her for his Cabinet - and it is unclear if she will ever share her true feelings about that race.
How should she navigate the nonstop speculation about 2016?
For her last presidential run, Clinton declared her candidacy nearly two years before Election Day - but the timing didn't feel right to her, because it made the race endless, say former aides who hint she would wait much longer if she made a bid again.
The enormously disciplined Clinton has stuck to the same story in public and private: She's not running. That is what she told Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and an old friend, when she and her family dined with him recently, according to Wiesel. Others close to her emphasize that no one knows otherwise, not even Clinton herself. "Be very wary of those pretending to bear actual knowledge," said Philippe Reines, her State Department spokesman.
Bill Clinton, however, sometimes cannot keep himself from verbally gaming out another campaign for her, said a friend who has recently spent time with him. "Every indication is that he would really want her to run," the friend said.
The speculation is not without its advantages. If Hillary Clinton is not running, she is a widely respected figure whose chief accomplishments are mostly behind her; if she may be running, she glows with White House and historic potential. "Nobody interacts with Hillary Clinton like she's fading off into the sunset," Reines said.