Capping a week in which unnamed Democrats whispered to reporters that they were concerned about Hillary Clinton’s campaign being built too much in the mode of Barack Obama’s from 2008 and 2012, the presumptive Democratic frontrunner demonstrated one way in which she intends to be thoroughly different from her one-time opponent.
Both Obama and Clinton are highly accomplished politicians with deep knowledge of policy and a strong commitment to public service. They also each came to their presidential runs possessed of a characteristic that – while not defining them – made them unique: Obama’s race and Clinton’s gender.
When Obama first ran for president, he made a sometimes heroic-seeming effort not to inject race into the campaign. It was, of course, dragged into the spotlight occasionally, by the Jeremiah Wright brouhaha and the frequent openly racist remarks made by detractors on the fringes of the Republican Party. But Obama never overtly ran on the fact that he would be the first African-American president.
In her major rally on Saturday at the Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York City, however, Clinton made it plain that she will not only campaign on the fact that she would be the first female president, but that she will do it vigorously.
Less than a minute into her remarks, Clinton made her first not-so-veiled reference to the historic nature of her potential presidency.
“To be here in this beautiful park dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt’s enduring vision of America, the nation we want to be. And in a place… with absolutely no ceilings.”
Clinton spent a considerable amount of the speech talking about her mother’s up-from-adversity life story, and told of how she would, “after a hard day at the Senate or the State Department, sit down with her at the small table in our breakfast nook, and just let everything pour out.”
She reused a joked about how voters watch presidents age in office, and pointed out, once again, the fact that she would be the first woman to sit in the Oval Office. “All our Presidents come into office looking so vigorous. And then we watch their hair grow grayer and grayer. Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the United States! “And the first grandmother as well,” she continued. “And one additional advantage: You’re won’t see my hair turn white in the White House. I’ve been coloring it for years!”
Having begun the speech with a reference to the metaphorical “glass ceiling” that often prevents women from rising to the same level of authority as men, she ended with a reminder of what a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean.
The country she wants to build, she said, is “an America where a father can tell his daughter: yes, you can be anything you want to be. Even President of the United States.”
None of this is to say that Clinton’s speech was a pure exercise in identity politics. It was packed with familiar policy proposals, from a national infrastructure bank to universal preschool and childcare; from more Wall Street reforms to a massive push to harness Green energy technologies.
It does, though, point out that while Clinton may chart a similar geographic strategy to Obama’s in terms of the states whose electoral votes she needs to secure, the way she wins those votes won’t necessarily be the same.
If, in 2008, Barack Obama and his campaign team had thought that trumpeting his potential to be the first African-American president in every public appearance would have been a net positive for his campaign, is there any doubt that he would have done it? Campaigns are about winning, and it’s the rare politician who is too finicky to seize an advantage when it presents itself.
They clearly made the determination that if Obama had been seen as making the campaign about race, and about the identity he shares with between 12 and 13 percent of the population, it would have harmed his chances more than it helped them.
Clinton it seems, has determined that she’s not likely to have that problem. She’ll run a policy-heavy campaign, focused in large part on her long-term interest in the welfare of children and families, on reducing income inequality, and on national security.
Unlike Obama, her personal identity as a woman – something she shares with 51 percent of the U.S. population – looks likely to play a major role in her campaign.
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