President Obama -- whether wittingly or unwittingly -- boiled down the central challenge for Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2016 presidential bid to just one sentence during an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "I think the American people, you know, they’re gonna want – you know, that new-car smell."
Yup. Elections -- especially one for president -- are inherently about the future. You are choosing the person to lead the country going forward, the person who will help you make a better life for your kids than you had/have. That calculation is more important now than ever, given that increasingly large numbers of Americans have real worries that the next generation won't be better off than the current one -- a fading of the American dream that will make the choice of president in 2016 all the more important.
Now, context is important. Obama was talking about himself when referencing the "new-car smell" that voters seek. Here's what he said right before that line (and you can check out the full transcript here):
One of the benefits of running for president is you can stake out your own positions. You’re– and– and have – a clean slate. A fresh start. You know, when you’ve been president for six years you– you know, you’ve got some dings.
Obama is, in the main, right. One of the reasons he was so successful as a candidate in 2008 was that he had relatively scant legislative experience, meaning that he hadn't taken a position or, more important, voted on, every single proposal under the sun. (Sidebar: That last sentence is why senators almost never get elected president. You just vote too often. On everything.) Obama could carve his own path because he didn't have a well-worn trail behind him that he needed to defend. That strategy worked, at least in part, because of the field Obama was running against in 2008: longtime senators such as Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, a sitting senator in John Edwards and, yes, Clinton.
Even in 2008, Clinton had, to borrow Obama's phrase, "some dings." The entire reason Obama was able to reverse course and enter the race after denying interest was because of Clinton's vote in support of the use-of-force resolution in Iraq -- and his opposition to it (although not while a member of the Senate.) Since at least 1992, Clinton has been an active part of the national (and international) political debate. From her husband's failed attempt to overhaul the health-care system in the early 1990s to her decisions made as secretary of state earlier this decade, Clinton's record is soooooooo long.
This is, in part, why she is such a giant favorite in a Democratic primary and, to a lesser extent, the general election in 2016. She is incredibly well known and, generally, well liked by the electorate. It feels like she has always been with us. There's a sense of reassurance in Clinton; she has proved, over a very long period of time, that she is up to the very difficult job of being president. That sense that she could do the job is even more important because a majority of Americans now believe that Obama -- with that relatively scant experience -- is simply not up to it.
The flipside of that strength, however, is that Clinton will struggle to cast herself as "new" in any meaningful way. To do so would be to run against -- or at least play down -- all of the experience that makes her appealing to large swaths of voters. The problem for her is this: What would you be surprised or intrigued to learn about her right now? Anything? It's hard to imagine.
Clinton's best "new" argument is to do what she inexplicably did not do six years ago: focus on the fact that she can make history as the first female presidential nominee from either major party. And, judging from her early I'm-not-running-but-really-I-am rhetoric, that seems to be the direction in which she is headed.
Still, if voters are looking for that "new-car smell," Republicans have far more options. People like Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Rand Paul are far fresher faces than Clinton and would also be able to make the generational change argument against her as the GOP nominee. (Clinton will be 69 on Election Day 2016; Rubio and Walker are in their 40s and Paul is 51.)
To the extent that Republicans have an edge over Clinton, it's in the "new-car smell" fight. That's why nominating Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush might not be as savvy a move as many within the Republican political establishment seem to believe.