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Hillary Clinton Runs as Obama-Plus

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Hillary Clinton's speech today on the economy was more of a table-setter than a genuine policy repast. The outline was bold while the details were mostly left for other days. But her words made one thing clear: The 2016 presidential campaign will feature even more partisan polarization than the 2012 one did.

In May, Clinton suggested that she would not only protect President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration, which are currently tied up in court, but she would do even more than Obama has to protect settled undocumented immigrants in the U.S. "If Congress refuses to act, as president I would do everything possible under the law to go even further," Clinton said.

Clinton's speech today, at Manhattan's New School, essentially confirmed her pitch to be "Obama-plus."

"If you work hard, you ought to be paid fairly," she said. "So we have to raise the minimum wage and implement President Obama’s new rules on overtime. And then we have to go further."

On health care, she promised to "protect the Affordable Care Act -- and build on it."  

Wall Street? As president, she would fight efforts to undermine Obama-era financial regulations and work to "protect the reforms we’ve made," she said. Oh, and while she's busy guarding the president's reforms, “We also have to go beyond Dodd-Frank."

A campaign promising a policy menu of Obama-plus should rally Democrats -- and give the party's most liberal activists less cause to swoon over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But it also will expand the gulf between the Democratic and Republican nominees even beyond the gap between Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. Presuming the 2016 Republican nominee's platform roughly resembles Romney's, the distance between Clinton and any GOP opponent -- even one with a more immigrant-friendly policy than "self-deportation" -- will be vast. Among other battle lines, the 2016 campaign is shaping up to be a stark competition between (Democratic) labor and (Republican) capital.

On rare occasions, Clinton has distanced herself from Obama. On Syria, she criticized the chaos in the region and leaned right by suggesting Obama should have been more aggressive in intervening in the conflict. On teachers and education policy, she has been coy. On trade, she has been noncommittal about the Pacific trade deal that Obama is negotiating, while hinting that a deal might be too costly to American workers. "Trade has been a major driver of the economy over recent decades but it has also contributed to hollowing out our manufacturing base and many hardworking communities," she said today. "So we do need to set a high bar for trade agreements."

Clinton has a freer hand discussing economics than Obama had in 2012, when his campaign was shadowed by sluggish, post-Great-Recession growth. She already has an easier time attacking Republican economic policy head-on. Speaking of 1993 and 2009, when Democrats last took over the presidency from Republicans, she said, "Twice now in the past 20 years, a Democratic president has had to come in and clean up the mess. I think the results speak for themselves."

In 2008, Clinton ran as the hardheaded pragmatist against Obama's dreamy idealist. Now she is saying she will secure his hard-won policy gains, and build on them. Given the likelihood of a Republican House of Representatives, a Clinton White House would find it easier to secure than build. Either way, Obama is the foundation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net