It may be too difficult for Hillary Clinton to reinvent herself

Hillary Rodham Clinton has a sparkling résumé but she is also captive to that biography. Experience is her greatest asset but she is constrained by her longevity in the public arena. She knows plenty — but perhaps too much to become an aspirational presidential candidate offering unlimited possibilities. She can evoke realism but can she seize the future?

Through countless interviews over the past few weeks, the prospective White House candidate has demonstrated the value of experience. Her command of issues, her knowledge of global hot spots, her familiarity with world leaders, her understanding of the presidency, her recognition of the challenges of gridlocked politics — all of these set her apart from virtually everyone else who may run in 2016, with the possible exception of Vice President Biden.

Those public appearances also have reinforced just how difficult it is for someone who has been in the political maelstrom for a quarter of a century to reinvent herself or to suddenly appear (or be viewed) as fresh and forward-looking. There is simply too much history in the minds of most Americans, except the very young, for the presentation of someone other than the familiar Hillary Clinton. Her book tour is a reminder that no candidate, or president, is as good as his or her advance billing.

Clinton has spent the month promoting her new book, “Hard Choices.” What has drawn the most attention, of course, are her stumbles, particularly those involving the wealth she and her husband, Bill Clinton, have amassed since his presidency ended.

Her comments about being “dead broke” upon leaving the White House and not being among the “truly well off” today have triggered an avalanche of coverage raising questions about whether she has lost touch with the lives of ordinary Americans.


Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greets fans at a book signing for her new book "Hard Choices," her recounting of her time as President Barack Obama’s top diplomat, at the Tattered Cover Book store in Denver on Monday, June 23, 2014. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

The Clintons no doubt still see themselves much the same as when they first met in law school more than four decades ago. Neither came from great wealth, and his origins were far more humble than hers. Both had brains and ambition and the opportunity to act on them, and they did. They rose to the pinnacle of the public sphere, and in the past decade, they have also gotten rich.

Their public accomplishments were not handed to them. By “dint of hard work,” as she puts it, they have become one of the most powerful and famous couples in the world — a past president and possible future president. The Clintons’ lives today could hardly be more different from the lives of most Americans.

That Hillary Clinton has found herself on the defensive about their financial success is no doubt maddening to her. It was dismaying to some of those in the broader Clinton orbit, who have watched her current performances from afar, that she didn’t have a more graceful and effective way to deal with this from the start.

It’s doubtful that the public holds the Clintons’ wealth against them, so why was she so defensive when the topic was raised? Was the way she handled these questions simply because she was rusty or did it reflect a lack of self-awareness by someone now relatively cocooned by security and a schedule that makes genuine interaction with ordinary people difficult?

The word “authenticity” is tossed around in connection with all politicians, coin of the realm in a period in which political packaging reaches ever greater sophistication and public cynicism about all politicians is high. Some politicians have the natural ring of authenticity; others don’t.

Hillary Clinton’s exchange with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross over her evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage did not do much to help her project such authenticity. Did her pushback in answering the questions reflect a fear of sounding too political — and therefore inauthentic — for having changed her position? Was it a reflection of underlying prickliness by someone with strong feelings about the news media?

These two examples could end up as small hiccups, not a long-term liability if she runs for president. Or not, depending on the kind of candidate she would be. In 2008, she sometimes gave voice to middle-class economic anxieties better than Barack Obama. She was a fighter criticized for lacking empathy, an advocate for working families who struggled to make herself more personable.

It is probably too much to expect that she would use a book tour to outline a vision for the future. But Clinton certainly knew that her interviewers would be asking questions that ranged far beyond the scope of the memoir of her State Department years. Some of the people who have long been in her corner privately expressed surprise that she did not have some kind of bigger message to deliver as she began to promote her book.

Clinton’s experience is so deep that there is hardly a domestic or foreign policy issue she hasn’t wrestled with in some detail at some point. That’s a plus — giving her the ability to project competence. But would her understanding of the complexities of many of the problems she would face as president make it more difficult to think creatively? After all, she already has come to conclusions about many of them. Would she be inclined to look back at the policies of her husband’s presidency as the foundation for future ideas?

Clinton’s prospective candidacy would represent the opportunity to break a significant barrier as the first female president in U.S. history. That alone might cast her as the candidate of the future. Obama offered inspiration without experience. Will she represent the opposite? Perhaps the projection of competence will be what voters want.

If people expect to see a new Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016, with a bold new agenda, they are likely to be disappointed. The question for Clinton is whether after so many years in the public eye she will be seen as a reassuring leader who is well-equipped for the times or as someone who does not wear well over the course of a long, partisan campaign.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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