How Hillary May Be Distancing Herself From Obama

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Hillary Clinton Holds Campaign Kick-Off Rally In NYC
Aiming to be Fighter in Chief. As opposed to...Photo: John Moore/2015 Getty Images

When Hillary Clinton last ran for president, she spent most of that campaign trying to differentiate herself from Barack Obama in the hopes of beating him for the Democratic nomination. Now, at the beginning of her campaign to replace Obama in the White House herself, it seems she is revisiting some of the same arguments, albeit presented in subtler ways. To no one’s surprise, this dynamic has received some attention following Clinton’s big campaign event Saturday on Roosevelt Island, with many reviewers focusing on what her speech — more in style than substance, and intentionally or not — has revealed about how her campaign will be positioned with regard to the president.

For instance, while The Atlantic’s Molly Ball was wholly unimpressed with Clinton’s speech, her observations paint the stark difference between Clinton and Obama when it comes to these types of events:

In keeping with the campaign so far, Saturday’s speech was quite substantive and quite liberal. It was also quite flat. Clinton read it slowly off the teleprompter, articulating every word, sometimes with odd emphasis, in a near-monotone. Clinton spoke in Four Freedoms Park, a locale chosen for its symbolic freight. It was a surprisingly small venue that did not quite fill up; an area set up for overflow with a large TV screen remained vacant.

Ball argues that it was “a speech that could have been given, with very little modification, by almost any Democratic Senate candidate,” though she also wonders if that was the point, in part:

Clinton’s advisers worry about the lack of passion the candidate elicits, but Saturday’s speech was so non-rousing as to make one wonder whether that wasn’t intentional—was it an attempt to bring Clinton down to earth, to make her ordinary? To deflate the aura of fame that clings to her and turn her into just another candidate, one who is solid and sensible and not too flashy, with lots of concrete plans?

Clinton tried this tack before, in 2008, when she tried in vain to convince Democratic voters that Barack Obama was all style and no substance. But this time, she is hoping she won’t have that kind of competition.

Others have echoed Ball’s sentiments, with some saying the speech felt more like a State of the Union address than a campaign event. National Review’s Rich Lowry concludes that “if [Clinton] wins the presidency, it obviously won’t be on the strength of her oratory”:

It was the speech you would expect given what we know about her electoral strategy of trying to replicate the Obama coalition, although in prose, not the (supposed) poetry of 2008 hope-and-change Obama. The delivery was pedestrian, and it was shrewd of her not to even try to be soaring, because that’s not a rhetorical style she is capable of.

But Slate’s John Dickerson defends Clinton’s speech, even if it was a little dry:

[T]he State of the Union approach may be a feature and not a bug. An event like this is not about the audience. It isn’t an argument of the kind Bill Clinton used to make. It is a buffalo that is cut up and passed around in social media. So anyone who cares about the environment will see her committed to that in a gorgeous setting. So too, those who are moved most by promises to provide paid family leave. In the age of precise narrowcasting, Clinton offered something that can be shipped to people of all interests. Plus, for a candidate who clearly loves policy and is running at a time when people are wary of high rhetoric, it probably doesn’t hurt to be defined as obsessed with policy.

Dickerson’s favorite part of the speech was when Clinton talked about the kind of relentless fighter she was, including lines like “I’ve spent my life fighting for America — I’m not stopping now,” and “I’ve been called a lot of things, by many people, but quitter is not one of them.” Indeed, as outlined by Politico, that fighter rhetoric was designed to be the heart of her speech:

If there was a clear theme to Clinton’s remarks, it was the “four fights” she vowed to wage on behalf of “everyday Americans”: building an economy for tomorrow, strengthening America and our core values, and revitalizing our democracy, in the campaign’s boiled-down language. Her candidacy, she said, would be a battle “for everyone who’s been knocked down but refused to be knocked out.”

But reading between the lines, the National Journal’s Ron Fournier sees Hillary trying to distance herself from Obama:

In an interesting riff on leadership, she said political elites “can blame forces beyond our control” for gridlock and polarization, but nothing excuses them from poor choices that deepen dysfunction. That sounded like a dig at President Obama and his liberal allies who blame “structural problems” and the GOP for his utter failure to unite the nation and change, even slightly, the culture of Washington.

Back at The Atlantic, David Frum pulls on that thread some more:

Hillary Clinton may praise Barack Obama, but her message delivered a stinging criticism of his approach to the presidency—a criticism that her party is ready to hear. Her repeated emphasis on “fighting” effectively proclaims: Yes, we are divided. I am dispensing with the feel-good talk. The other side is battling for their team: older, whiter, more affluent, more married, and more rural. I’ll battle just as hard for my team: younger, more diverse, less affluent, unmarried, and more urban. A vote for me isn’t a vote for ‘unity.’ It’s a vote to claim a larger piece of the nation’s dwindling resources from people you don’t like and who don’t like you. They don’t like me either, but following Franklin Delano Roosevelt, rather than my oversensitive former boss, I don’t care.

He goes on:

Some people (you know who they are) might imagine leadership as inspirational rhetoric and necessary compromise. Hillary Clinton disagrees. “Leadership means perseverance and hard choices. You have to push through the setbacks and disappointments and keep at it.”

In 2007, Barack Obama again and again referenced hope. Hillary Clinton did not use the word once. What she repeatedly offered instead is fighting, and lots of it. On this, at least, she seems likely to keep her word.

But while it does seem Clinton is trying to distinguish herself from Obama and come across as a more combative and, in theory, productive advocate for liberal policies, Vox’s Ezra Klein isn’t convinced it would make a difference. He thinks Clinton presented a lot of good ideas, but he didn’t hear how she actually planned to bring any of them to fruition considering it is a near certainty that, even if she won, she’d still be stuck with a GOP-led Congress:

[T]here’s a Democrat in the White House right now. He supports these ideas, too. And yet, they languish in press releases and stalled legislation. How will Hillary Clinton make them law?

This might be a lot to ask from a campaign announcement speech — or from any campaign speech. Grand promises are the coin of the realm. But as Obama has found out, a campaign that dreams too big can set up a presidency that disappoints the very people it once inspired. If Clinton is going to rebuild the excitement Obama harnessed in 2008, she’s going to have to convince disillusioned Democrats that she can make good on her promises.

Whether Clinton actually has that theory will be the question lurking behind the policy speeches aides say she will deliver in the coming weeks. No worker gets a wage hike because of a minimum wage proposal. No mother gets paid sick days from a white paper. In this, the location of Clinton’s speech was telling: Franklin Delano Roosevelt isn’t remembered for what he proposed on the campaign trail, but for how much he did in office.

He adds that “she has had eight years to watch both Obama’s successes and failures, and to consider what she would do differently,” so he expects Clinton to provide voters with some kind of resulting insight and a strategy for moving forward:

Hillary Clinton keeps telling us she’s a fighter. And I believe her. I think pretty much everyone does. But the question for a fighter isn’t whether they’ll fight. It’s how they’ll win.