The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We can’t figure out why Hillary Clinton can’t figure out why people don’t think she’s Elizabeth Warren

This March 23, 2015 shows former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she takes part in a discussion on "our nation's urban centers," and "challenges from housing and transportation to education and workforce accessibility" at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMMNICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
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The problem with being a politician is that you can't always control how people look at you. This is the Eternal Lament of the Romney Clan, that if only Americans had seen the real Mitt Romney, they'd have elected him president by acclamation. It seems, too, to be the adopted lament of backers of Hillary Clinton, as is neatly articulated in Amy Chozick's Times piece about Clinton efforts to talk income inequality and wages.

Among the artifacts offered to make that case that Clinton has always been a populist warrior against Wall Street was a "16-page dossier" titled, "Hillary Clinton: A Lifetime Champion of Income Opportunity." The site Correct the Record, which is run by Clinton allies, has a document of the same name (though minus a part described by Chozick where Sen. Elizabeth Warren is called "a footnote"). It outlines several programs Clinton supported as First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States and in the Senate that bolster the idea of Clinton as a working class champion. (It also lists several dozen snippets from more recent speeches which, in our estimation, is kind of cheating.)

It's not clear that Clinton has a problem with not being seen as populist. In a March poll from CBS News, 56 percent of respondents said they thought Clinton cared about the needs and problems of normal Americans -- and that includes a third of Republicans! What's more, it's not clear that Americans care that much about income inequality as a campaign issue.

But if Correct the Record wants to correct the record, we'll grant them that there's a record to correct.

If there is a public perception of Clinton as being distant from populist economic politics, there's little mystery why that's the case. Clinton went from Capitol Hill to the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, where she raised economic issues -- but that was before the economic collapse that triggered the recession. As the country was dealing with the repercussions of those events, Clinton was leading the State Department, and her input on those unrelated issues would probably not have been embraced by President Obama. These are things that were out of Clinton's control.

When Clinton left the State Department, though, she moved into the Clinton Global Initiative world. Clinton is dealing with some of the ramifications of CGI's fluid exchange of ideas, charity, and money given still-murky allegations about how the organization's funders overlapped with possible advocacy from the State Department. But Clinton is also dealing with being a marquee player in what can look from the outside like Davos Lite: Big money, big names, big events, big talk.

Clinton's post-State life was chartered planes and lengthy riders for six-figure speeches, just as Mitt Romney's post-2008 life was shuttling between large houses and accruing millions in salary. Americans by now are used to the wealthy holding positions of political power, and are also used to offering some skepticism when those politicians try to demonstrate their down-home bona fides. Clinton's "we were broke" comments last year didn't exactly convince anyone.

In one sense, efforts by Clinton's team to focus attention on her past are working. We're focusing on it. But the income inequality gap that Clinton needs to address is between herself and her audience. She spent much of the last two years building up her income. She'll spend much of the next two, it seems, downplaying it.