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On Obama-Clinton menu: tea leaves

In this handout provided by the White House, US President Barack Obama has lunch with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the patio outside the Oval Office.

Chuck Kennedy/White House via Getty Images

In this handout provided by the White House, US President Barack Obama has lunch with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the patio outside the Oval Office.

WASHINGTON — When is a lunch more than just a meal? When the diners are President Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Americans want to know who, if anyone, the president will endorse in 2016.

A meal shared by Obama and his rival-turned-ally threw the speculation machine into overdrive Monday, highlighting how closely both are watched for signs of their intentions in the next presidential race.

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For Clinton, it’s a question of whether the former first lady and secretary of state under Obama will launch another campaign eight years after she lost to Obama in a hard-fought primary. For Obama, it’s about dueling loyalties to two of his closest advisers: Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, who is also said to be eyeing the Oval Office.

‘‘The purpose of the lunch was chiefly social,’’ said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, calling it a ‘‘chance to catch up’’ and adding Obama made the invitation. ‘‘Secretary Clinton and the president have developed not just a strong working relationship, but also a genuine friendship.’’

Biden will have his own chance to shoot the breeze with his former Senate colleague and 2008 primary opponent on Tuesday. Biden and Clinton will have breakfast at the Naval Observatory, the vice president’s official residence.

Clinton has kept up a hectic schedule of speeches and public appearances that has provided further fodder to those urging her to run again.

A super PAC seeking to create a campaign-in-waiting in case she runs, Ready for Hillary, recently picked up support from some of Obama’s most prominent former campaign organizers.

So it’s understandable that each Obama-Clinton rendezvous is closely analyzed.

‘‘In Democratic circles, it makes people fantasize and engage in all kinds of speculation, when in fact it may just be a tete-a-tete between the leader of the free world and the most important person in the Democratic Party,’’ said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist who worked on Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection.

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