Clinton distances herself from Obama’s style, if not his substance
new york— Hillary Rodham Clinton kicked off the second phase of her presidential campaign here on Saturday, and it was clear that, as much as she might broadly embrace President Obama on policy, she will present herself as a different kind of chief executive.
It has long been said that voters use presidential elections to correct perceived deficiencies in the incumbent. Asking for continuity of power while nevertheless advocating changes, Clinton appears eager to contrast herself with Obama in ways that are both subtle and direct.
If Obama spoke of transformation, Clinton is running as a workaday problem solver with a lengthy to-do list and the policies to match— an incrementalist who will measure progress in small changes as much as grand achievements.
If the Obama who defeated her eight years ago was the candidate of soaring rhetoric, of hope and inspiration, Clinton is running as a dogged and determined fighter at a time when many voters are looking for evidence of achievable results.
If Obama is faulted for having failed to develop relationships with Republicans— or even Democrats, as Friday’s trade vote in the House reminded— Clinton will be presented as someone whose approach is not that of a president often described as distant from other elected officials. The former secretary of state chose a stunning and symbolic setting for her first big rally: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Park in the middle of the East River on the tip of Roosevelt Island, with expansive views of the New York skyline.
In choosing the site, she linked herself to Roosevelt’s legacy of lifting up the American people from the Great Depression. But as she noted, this is not Roosevelt’s time— nor, as she added, is it 1993, when her husband took office, or 2009 when Obama confronted the Great Recession.
“We face new challenges in our economy and our democracy,” Clinton said, offering herself as someone prepared to dig more deeply into the entrenched economic problems that have resisted solutions from Democratic and Republican administrations.
Clinton’s address was partisan and populist and personal. It was many speeches in one. Aides had described it as the foundation upon which her candidacy will be built, to be followed with a steady series of policy speeches that will fill out the broad outlines she offered Saturday.
One part of her speech drew sharp contrasts with her Republican rivals. She blamed the GOP for the collapse of the economy and, by implication, the problems that remain. “Fundamentally, they reject what it takes to build an inclusive economy,” she said.
She was dismissive of those who are now seeking the GOP nomination. “There may be some new voices in the presidential Republican choir,” she said, “but they’re all singing the same old song, a song called ‘Yesterday.’ ”
It’s worth noting that when he announced his candidacy two months ago, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida cast Clinton as the candidate of yesterday.
A second part of the speech appeared designed to keep her Democratic rivals at bay. Using populist language, she railed against the top 1 percent and sought to reassure nervous progressives that she shares their values, even if she has not yet shown she agrees with them on the details of policy.
Those include what she described as the imbalance between those at the very top and the rest of the population— the gap between CEOs and hedgefund operators and the people whose wages have stagnated and who feel as if the deck is stacked against them.
She said she is running to make the economy work for all Americans, “the successful and the struggling.” But the policies she outlined were aimed at the struggling, with the successful destined to be asked to pay more. “Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge-fund managers,” she said. “Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations.”
It’s doubtful, however, that rhetoric alone will satisfy those on her party’s left, or rivals for the nomination such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. Noticeably absent on the day after House Democrats dealt Obama a big defeat on trade was any mention of a topic that has become a major issue for the left.
A third part of the speech brought out the policy wonk in Clinton, an extension of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Outlining four major ambitions, she salted in enough ideas to fill out an entire State of the Union address.
She talked about new incentives for businesses that share profits with workers, a rewritten tax code, moremoney to spur innovation, ambitious clean-energy policies, an infrastructure bank, pre-K and child care for every child, college affordability, paid family leave and sick leave, a ban on discrimination of gay and transgender Americans, a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally.
At other points, she spoke more personally, though this, too, provided a contrast with Obama, who has used his biography to offer the narrative thread for his larger political and policy goals.
Clinton’s suburban upbringing was more far more prosaic than Obama’s story, and so in her speech here on Saturday, Clinton found inspiration for her candidacy not in her own upbringing, but in the poignant story of her mother’s.
Dorothy Rodham successfully emerged from a childhood of trauma and neglect, and it was that experience, Clinton said, that has become the motivation for her advocacy for children and for struggling families— and now the foundation of her 2016 campaign.
On Friday, the Clinton campaign released a video that offered touchstones in Clinton’s life and career. The accompanying commentary— her own and that of others— sought to highlight what her advisers see as her most important attributes: that she will be a fighter for people who need one.
Definition of a fighter? “Someone who won’t give up,” the narrator in the video says.
Recipe for progress? “There are no miracles in this,” says Marian Wright Edelman, for whom a young Clinton worked at the Children’s Defense Fund. “It’s hard work. It’s sticking with it. It’s perseverance.”
The video highlights one of Clinton’s biggest setbacks, the failure to enact comprehensive health-care reform during the first two years of her husband’s administration.
But it also makes note of the later passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. “You have to get up off the floor and keep fighting,” Clinton says.
On Saturday, she said that leadership means “you have to push through the setbacks and disappointments and keep at it. I think you know by now that I’ve been called many things by many people. ‘Quitter’ is not one of them. Like so much else inmy life, I got this frommy mother.”
Whether any of this will change certain perceptions of Clinton is a different question. Formany Americans, impressions of Clinton are baked into their consciousness. Some people love her; some loathe her. Some are solidly in her corner; some are lost no matter what she does.
The past 18 months have seen a steady and significant decline in her personal ratings. Her advisers think some of that comes with any politician wh ohas been in the arena as long as she has.
Clinton is not running to be liked by everyone, though that’s not to say her campaign won’t seek to improve her image. Instead, she is seeking to show that what is most authentic about her is that she knows the fight she wants to take on and has a commitment to doing the job as best as she knows how. What she doesn’t yet know is whether that will be enough for a majority of Americans.