Hillary Clinton launched the second phase of her presidential campaign on Saturday, drawing heavily on her personal story as she outlined her vision for shared prosperity for all Americans.
After two months of relatively low-key outreach to voters and donors aimed at reintroducing her to the country, Clinton appeared at her first campaign rally, on New York’s Roosevelt Island, with Manhattan and a wide blue sky as a backdrop and, at the end of her speech, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea, at her side.
Alluding to the historic effort she is making to become the nation's first female president, Clinton noted she was holding her first rally "in a place with absolutely no ceilings."
After downplaying her gender when she first ran for president, Clinton embraced it in her first stump speech of the 2016 campaign, along with another quality that some of her opponents have tried to make an issue.
"I may not be the youngest candidate in the race, but I will be the youngest woman president of the United States" the 67-year-old Clinton declared, in what aides later said was an ad libbed line inspired by a South Carolina woman she met on the campaign trail. The crowd that the Clinton camp estimated at 5,500 exploded in a flag-waving roar of approval.
And though she would also be the "first grandmother" in the Oval Office, Clinton joked: "You will not see my hair grow white in office; I've been coloring it for years."
A populist agenda
Clinton gave a few nods to her extensive resume, thanking the New Yorkers who made her the first wife of a U.S. president to win elective office, and gesturing across the East River at the United Nations where, as President Barack Obama's secretary of state, she "represented our nation many times."
But Clinton devoted most of her speech, which aides said she wrote with the help of speechwriter Dan Schwerin and the input of many others, to what her campaign is calling a "bold progressive agenda," with a populist call "to make the middle class mean something again and to give the poor a chance to work their way into it."
Saying that the nation's top 25 hedge fund managers "make more than all of Americans' kindergarten teachers combined and often paying a lower tax rate," Clinton promised she'd turn the tables. "Prosperity can't be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers. Democracy can't be just for billionaires and corporations," she said. "I will rewrite the tax code to reward hard work and investments in America, not quick trades or stashing profits overseas."
Brickbats and one bouquet
Republican National Committee press secretary Allison Moore cast Clinton's speech as "chock full of hypocritical attacks, partisan rhetoric and ideas from the past that have led to a sluggish economy leaving too many Americans behind."
A senior strategist for former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who is challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination, also responded with a swipe at Clinton.
"Democrats, and, in fact our nation, will not make progress with status quo thinking," the strategist, Bill Hyers, said. "We need someone who can bring new leadership, strong progressive values, and a record of getting things done to the White House — and that person is Martin O'Malley."
But Tom Steyer, who was the single largest individual super-PAC donor of the last election cycle with the $73.7 million he pumped into his environmentalist NextGen Climate Action Committee, praised Clinton for highlighting "the climate crisis" in her speech and for choosing a venue that "was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy."
Delivered in Four Freedoms Park, dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union address, Clinton's speech was heavy on symbolism and the personal. She drew inspiration from FDR and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt — like Clinton, a first lady with a controversial preference for policy over the domestic arts — as well as the life story of Clinton's late mother, Dorothy Rodham.
"If you give me a chance," Clinton told her audience, she will work to win four “big fights” that she has made the core of her campaign: building the economy of the future; strengthening communities and families; fixing the political system and getting "unaccountable" money out of politics; and keeping the country safe.
Clinton said she would advocate for employee rights, among them: paid sick days, advance notice of work schedules to accommodate child care and continuing education, paid family leave, equal pay for women and protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. She also said she would advocate for "new incentives" for companies that share profits with their employees.
She will detail her ideas on those and other issues — including college affordability, climate change and clean energy, and corporate accountability and Wall Street reform — in a series of policy speeches that will be rolled out at a pace of about one a week through the summer.
As she already has on the campaign trail, Clinton took aim at the Supreme Court for the 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the way for unlimited political contributions by corporations, labor unions, and trade associations, suggesting that she'd use the presidential power to appoint court members to change its make up. "We need justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen's right to vote rather than every corporation's right to buy elections," she said.
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Clinton outlined an energy policy that would transition from fossil to green energy, saying she would use royalties and other fees from the older forms of fuel to promote the new. She said that she would establish an "infrastructure bank" that would sell bonds to finance repairs to roads and bridges and to improve the nation's Internet networks.
From Roosevelt Island, Clinton was headed to Sioux City, Iowa, where she will attend a grassroots organizing meeting that will be livestreamed to similar gatherings in every congressional district nationwide. If Clinton's day was about outlining her vision and rationale for the presidency, her night will be about building the team to get her there.
While critics called Saturday’s event and Clinton’s planned travel this week to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada a relaunch (or even a reset, to poke at an embarrassing incident with the Russians during her time as secretary of state), her aides insist that it’s just shifting up a gear, accelerating from perhaps 25 miles per hour to 45.
'This is the campaign'
If the first phase was the ramp-up, "this is the campaign," communications director Jennifer Palmieri said Friday at a pre-launch event hosted by Politico. "Welcome to the campaign."
In two months, Clinton's campaign went from having just a small group of volunteer staffers-in-waiting to a few hundred — including paid staff in every state. In the early-voting states, it has opened 15 offices and gotten volunteer commitments from more than 11,000 people.
Because Clinton spent four years as secretary of state and spent much of her first presidential campaign focused on foreign policy, she and her team are confident she can continue to demonstrate mastery of those issues without making them the focus of her campaign. So while most of the Republican hopefuls focus on foreign policy, trying to boost their own bona fides and finding attack lines against Clinton and President Barack Obama, she is turning to what her team thinks most Americans care about most: the economy.
“The most important issue for most voters in the county is the need to give more Americans a chance to get ahead and achieve economic security in their lives," said Geoff Garin, her 2008 pollster. "I think Hillary Clinton as a candidate so far has shown as a candidate she understands it.”
With so much attention on Clinton as she returned to partisan politics, her unfavorable ratings have ticked upward during the soft-launch phase of the campaign as she avoided reporters and focused on small roundtables with voters, punctuated by a few policy speeches. In March, 44 percent of those surveyed for a CNN/ORC poll said they viewed her unfavorably. By late May, 50 percent said the same. In the same period, the proportion of voters who said she is not honest and trustworthy rose from 49 percent to 57 percent. Other polls have shown similar shifts.
Clinton allies argue that her rising unfavorables were to be expected as she shifted roles from that of the nation's top diplomat to a Democratic presidential candidate. But the string of unflattering revelations have also hurt, chief among them, the news that Clinton used private email accounts and servers for much of her government business and the eye-popping tally of speakers' fees paid by corporate and foreign entities to her, her husband and the Clinton Foundation.
The Clinton campaign and its allies were, though, largely successful in fending off one stream of attacks, pegged to the promotional blitz for conservative writer Peter Schweizer's Clinton Cash. "They threw the book at Hillary and the book lost," campaign manager Robby Mook said at Friday's pre-launch event.