Thursday night’s acceptance speech by Hillary Clinton was mostly a symbolically resonant and broad-brush appeal to millions of undecided voters who still perceive her as the most famous but least understood and mistrusted presidential nominee of modern times.
Polls show that large majorities of people don’t like her. They think she’s qualified and smart, sure. But they also consider her aloof, calculating, untrustworthy.
“She has to connect with people and pivot,” said Bob Shrum, the longtime party strategist and master speechwriter. “She can’t just say, ‘Trust me.’ She has to begin to convince people she cares about them, and then they'll begin to trust her.”
For Democratic strategists, changing the way people think about their nominee may be the heaviest lift of the campaign. Although she has been a constant in American political life for a quarter century, and the mention of her name sparks both love and loathing, the candidate and her advisers argue that the country doesn’t know the real Hillary Clinton.
On Tuesday, the convention program helped with a parade of supporters – including husband and former President Bill Clinton – opening windows into her character, sharing the Hillary they know. Speakers talked about Clinton’s lifelong work for women and children, social justice (including time as an undercover investigator of school segregation in Alabama), health care, and global peace and security issues.
They also testified to Clinton’s personal qualities, such as her playfulness with children and her loyalty and devotion, driving through a blizzard to the funeral of a friend’s father, for instance.
On Wednesday, the former secretary of State’s onetime boss, President Obama, pitched in with a description of her crisis-management skills, from his experience of working with her in the Situation Room on vexing problems.
“Even in the middle of crisis, she listens to people, and keeps her cool, and treats everybody with respect,” Obama said. “And no matter how daunting the odds; no matter how much people try to knock her down, she never, ever quits. That’s the Hillary I know. That’s the Hillary I’ve come to admire.”
Yet the public/private dichotomy continues. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this month, Clinton’s “record of being dishonest” was a serious concern for 69 percent of voters. And 56 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of her, according to the average of polls taken this month compiled by Real Clear Politics.
Sonya Huber, a professor of English at Fairfield University in Connecticut, just wrote a biography called “The Evolution of Hillary Clinton.” Huber said she repeatedly ran into evidence of a warm, private Hillary Clinton that is often hidden in public.
“My theory is that, seeing the intense scrutiny she fell under as first lady, she became guarded,” Huber said. “Amid the ‘-gates’ the Republicans tried to tag the Clintons with, she developed a defensive personality. She began to sort of withdraw.”
In the 1990s, Clinton was scrutinized for her hairstyles and manner, her secretive health care task force, and scandals involving the Whitewater land deal and giving control of the White House travel office to cronies. More recently, she has come under fire for using a private email server as secretary of State for correspondence, including highly classified information.
While tangling with the contradictions of her own image, Hillary Clinton also has a political balancing act before her – to forge her own path, while also owning her status as Obama’s heir and as wife to a former president, who comes with his own potential upside (economic prosperity in the 1990s) and baggage.
Looking beyond election
But, just off stage this week, her closest campaign and policy advisers along with some senior congressional Democrats are already looking beyond the fall campaign. They are starting to plot the course for a presidency that would very likely begin in a divided government.
“It’s going to be tough, but we think we can get some stuff done,” campaign chairman John Podesta concedes about the prospect of enacting her legislative priorities in collaboration with a House that looks to remain Republican and a Senate that will be very closely split no matter which party wins control this fall.
But as soon as the honeymoon period shows signs of ending, and the GOP signals its main objective during the new Clinton administration is to stymie her, she is prepared to be as muscular in the use of executive authority as Obama, whose assertiveness on this score has not only intensified disdain from Republicans on Capitol Hill but also troubled many in his party.
“Of course it would be better if we could get some cooperation from Congress, but we’re not waiting long for that,” Podesta said. “She’d rather find common ground, but she'll stand her ground.”
Podesta, who has not ruled out taking a senior administration job should she be elected but does not want to reprise his role as White House chief of staff, headlined a briefing Wednesday sponsored by The Atlantic that also included three other powerful players in Hillary Clinton’s orbit of policy advisers.
All of them agreed that another drive to overhaul immigration policy, centered on creating a pathway to citizenship for the millions now in the country illegally, would be launched within her first 100 days, as Clinton has vowed, and consume a good share of whatever the political capital the 45th president has to spend.
The group also concurred that, despite some contradictory signals this week that rattled delegates for Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton would remain opposed to the Pacific Rim trade liberalization accord known as the Trans Pacific Partnership. She would not make renegotiating it a priority next year while pursuing a different economic agenda.
Clinton’s advisers signaled that right after the inauguration, the new president would pursue legislation doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, authorizing billions of dollars in new public works spending, and seeking to boost the quality of the American workforce with new subsidies for both family leave and college tuition.
They left little doubt she would ask Congress to pay for all that by raising taxes on the richest individuals even while creating new tax breaks for businesses that boost their domestic employment rolls. Offsetting the cost of her priorities by curbing the growth of the safety net entitlements (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) was not discussed. Neither was deficit reduction.
Contributing: Philadelphia Inquirer, CQ-Roll Call