BUENA PARK, Calif. — Rallying hundreds of service workers who are struggling to get by, Hillary Clinton tried here last week to empathize with their frustrations and promised to deliver change.
A Clinton presidency, she vowed, would bring better-paying jobs, renovated schools, and repaired bridges and highways. Labor laws would toughen, student debt would decline, and health care would be more accessible. Then there was the most obvious change of all: “It’s about time that we had a woman running this country,” exhorted Clinton’s introducer, actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
But not everyone at Clinton’s Southern California rally saw the Democratic presidential front-runner as a credible change agent. Agusein Garcia, a 47-year-old father of six who stocks grocery shelves for a living, shook his head as he watched her campaign.
“She’s not going to change anything because she’s part of the people in power,” Garcia said. “She’s not part of us. It’s as simple as that.”
That sentiment encapsulates one of Clinton’s biggest vulnerabilities in a general election against Republican Donald Trump that she otherwise is well positioned to win. Polls show that a large majority of voters believe that the country is going in the wrong direction and that the political system is dysfunctional. They are hungry for change — and they see Trump as most likely to deliver it.
In May’s Washington Post-ABC News poll, Clinton led Trump on a range of presidential attributes, including whose policies are most realistic and who has the better temperament and experience. But when voters were asked who would bring needed change to Washington, Trump trounced Clinton, 53 percent to 39 percent.
“Donald Trump is the vote for change in this election,” Republican strategist Fred Davis said. “She simply can’t be. He’s the future; she’s the past. He’s exciting; she’s same-ole, same-ole. . . . In today’s climate, I think change overwhelms safe. Advantage Donald.”
At Clinton’s New York campaign headquarters, her advisers are grappling with how to convince swing voters that a former secretary of state, senator and first lady who owns a home in Washington, has cultivated deep ties to Wall Street and has played a starring role in the political scene for a quarter-century would usher in change.
Central to Clinton’s strategy for the fall campaign is to disqualify Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, as too dangerous and risky to be commander in chief. She began this effort in earnest over the past 10 days.
But in a campaign season shaped by voter fury, Clinton’s team and her Democratic allies believe that merely assailing Trump may not secure the White House for their candidate. Clinton must be seen as a credible leader for middle-class Americans exasperated by the gridlocked government and an economic system that they think has failed them.
“There’s so much anger at the establishment, and it’s hard for her to divorce herself from that because she’s been a fixture on the scene for so long,” said David Axelrod, who was the chief strategist on President Obama’s campaigns. “It is important to speak to the sense of insecurity that is driving some Americans, but I think she has to do it in a way that is authentic.”
This environment gave birth to the surprisingly successful insurgency of Bernie Sanders, who rocketed from near-obscurity to winning primaries in state after state. Though the senator from Vermont trails Clinton in the overall delegate count by a seemingly insurmountable margin, Sanders has been barnstorming California, which votes next week, in hopes of upsetting his rival in the most populous state and taking his case to the Democratic National Convention.
While Sanders’s clarion call for a “revolution” draws thousands of liberals to his rallies, Clinton’s campaigning generates far more selective enthusiasm. Axelrod said her suite of proposals addresses people’s unrest — but she needs to project more empathy. He suggested she share anecdotes about her middle-class, Midwestern upbringing, for one.
“She’s got a trove of policy to speak to various aspects of this insecurity, but the question is whether that is a substitute for a sense of genuine identification,” Axelrod said.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who advises the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action, said his focus groups and other research show that Clinton’s positions against Citizens United, in support of a surtax on multimillionaires, and backing a crackdown on big banks and pharmaceutical companies resonate with voters.
Contrasting her with Trump, Garin said: “Their approach to change is very different. Donald Trump is a blow-the-place-up kind of guy, and that’s not who Hillary Clinton is or ever will be. At the end of the day, Trump’s version of blowing the place up will become justifiably frightening to voters.”
In an interview with The Post last week, Trump was asked what he thought Clinton could do to persuade the angry voters now backing him to cast their ballots for her in November.
“I can’t tell Hillary how to behave,” Trump said. “I can’t think for Hillary. I have to think for myself.”
Trump said that what the United States needs most is “spirit” and that only an outsider like himself could bring it. “Our country needs a cheerleader,” he said. “We’re down — and if we have her, we’re going to be out.”
For Clinton’s supporters, part of her appeal is that she is measured and methodical — a change agent, yes, but a pragmatic figure, not a revolutionary one. Chelsea Nguyen, 52, a homemaker who attended a Clinton rally last week in Salinas, Calif., counts herself among those voters who want Washington to change — only she thinks Clinton should be the president to do it.
“Just because people assume Hillary is part of the system doesn’t mean she won’t make changes,” Nguyen said. “I am frustrated. The middle class is shrinking, and I am the middle class. But it would be chaos to overthrow the system.”
She went on: “It’s like if your house is leaking and you look up in the phone book for anybody to fix it except the plumber. It makes no sense. You can’t just assume that the establishment can’t change.”
In Buena Park last Wednesday, Clinton’s rally at a union hall appeared choreographed to project energy and change. Jennifer Lopez’s party anthem “Let’s Get Loud” blared from the speakers. One of Clinton’s staffers, dressed in a suit and tie, distributed hand-painted signs to the people standing behind her lectern. He gave each of them a miniature American flag to wave. Then, standing in front of the people like a conductor before his orchestra, he surveyed the image as they, on his cue, practiced cheering with their props.
Soon afterward, Clinton strode out, and during 36 minutes of remarks she tried to demonstrate that she offered a better cure for people’s anxieties than Trump or Sanders did.
“Do we have problems? Well, of course we have problems,” Clinton said. “If you’ve been alive longer than an hour, you’ve got a problem. I speak from experience. So what do Americans do? Do we either cower down and moan and groan about how bad things are?”
“Nooooo!” the crowd cried out, booing.
“Or do we make promises we can’t keep and get people even more frustrated and angry?” Clinton asked.
“Or do we roll up our sleeves and get to work?”
The assembled laborers roared with hearty approval. Yet there in the back was Garcia, the grocery store worker. He was not feeling it.
“This — it’s like a cheerleading contest,” he said. “Does she know how much the average working person makes, even if the economy is getting better under Obama? I make $20 an hour, part time, and I’ve been working for 27 years.”
Did that mean Garcia would vote for Trump?
“No, no, no, no,” he said, laughing.
But Garcia’s kids have sold him on supporting Sanders in California’s primary next Tuesday. And if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, he said, he would consider a third-party candidate.
“She’s been in power for so long already,” Garcia said. “We need a big change.”
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.