Hillary Clinton, the former US senator, first lady and Secretary of State, has launched her candidacy for the White House in a bid to crack what she has called “the highest and hardest glass ceiling” and become the first female to join the roster of American commanders-in-chief.
The big - if entirely anticipated - news was broken first by her new campaign manager, John Podesta, in an email to supporters. Moments later she released a peppy, two-minute video featuring a youthful cast of beaming couples, some gay, and a promise that as president she would be a defender of all Americans.
“Everyday Americans need a champion, I want to be that champion,” Mrs Clinton declares on the video, shot in the last several days ahead of last night’s roll-out. “Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times, but the deck is still stacked in favour of those at the top.”
The populist pitch, which did not include any images of former President Bill Clinton, amounted to an early acknowledgement that under President Barack Obama improvements in the economy have not reached everyone.
Mrs Clinton, 67, thus becomes the first Democrat officially to throw her hat into the ring for 2016. She will make trips this week to Iowa and to New Hampshire, the two states that will kick off the nomination contests early next year. To combat any aura of inevitably – polls have her far ahead of all possible Democrat rivals – she will eschew big events in favour of intimate encounters with voters.
It is a second go-around for Mrs Clinton, of course. In 2008 she found herself in a protracted primary brawl with Mr Obama. Republicans with their eyes set on the White House were already lining up to criticise Mrs Clinton, evoking a variety of controversies that could be troublesome for her.
Those bear-traps include her handling of the 2012 sacking by Islamists of the US consulate in Benghazi in Libya, which left the US ambassador to Libya dead, the flow of funds from other governments – not always friendly to the US – into the charitable foundation run by her husband and herself, and the revelation earlier this year that as Secretary of State she used a private email server.
“There is a history of the Clintons feeling they are above the law,” Senator Rand Paul, who last week launched his bid for the Republican nomination, commented tartly yesterday, noting that Saudi Arabia had been a big benefactor of the foundation, undercutting her message of supporting women’s rights. It “makes it difficult for her message to appear sincere,” he said.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor also set soon to seek the Republican nod, used a video message of his own to query her accomplishments as America’s top diplomat in Mr Obama’s first term. “We must do better than the Obama-Clinton foreign policy that has damaged relationships with our allies and emboldened our enemies,” he said. Another Florida Republican, Senator Marco Rubio, is set to announce his candidacy today (Mon).
On paper, her position could not be stronger. She has name recognition to die for, qualifications for the job that only vice-President Joe Biden among her conceivable rivals comes close to matching, vast financial resources and an army of true believers for whom she answers a historical calling to be America’s first female president.
All this currently adds up to a 40 to 50 per cent lead in the polls against her putative opponents, not one of whom has yet formally declared. Never in recent times has a non-incumbent candidate so dominated a presidential primary field, at this admittedly early stage in proceedings.
But it may not be so easy for much longer. American politics abhors non-contests. Certainly, no obvious once-in-a-generation rival like Barack Obama lurks in the wings. But others will enter the race, one of whom – perhaps the former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley – will surely emerge as the anti-Hillary, running to her left.
And even Hillary Clinton has her weaknesses. For one thing, despite more than two decades in the national spotlight, she remains, as someone has said, the “least known well-known woman” on the planet.
She projects herself as a foreign policy interventionist, more hawkish than Obama, her rival and then boss during her four years at the State Department. She is a proven and effective advocate of women’s and minority rights. But what does she really stand for, and why does she want to be president?
For liberals in the party she comes across as too close to Wall Street, not ready to take drastic action to narrow the ever widening gulf in the US between the rich and the rest. Hence the continuing pressure on Elizabeth Warren to enter the race. Some on the right of her party however, see her as a statist, too wedded to big government.
Then there is her age. Should she win, she will be 69 when she takes office, the second oldest incoming president in history, behind only Ronald Reagan. American presidential elections are about the future. Ms Clinton must make sure she is not perceived as a throwback to the past.
Nor – as 2007/2008 showed – is she a very good campaigner, certainly not a patch on her husband. The private Clinton, we are told, has a terrific vitality and sense of humour. The public one however often comes across as guarded and calculating, secretive and defensive. Last month’s controversy over her private email system while Secretary of State only reinforced that impression.
And while she bestrides the Democratic field, it will not be so easy in the general election. Her national approval ratings are down considerably from her days as Secretary of State. For what they are worth at this stage, some polls now show her losing to certain of her Republican rivals in key swing states.
And the GOP attack machine, politely known as ‘opposition research’, is already on her case. Nothing maddens Republicans more than the Clintons’ shared ability to bounce back from the most damning of scandals, and to turn their opponents’ attacks to their advantage. But that won’t stop Republicans from trying again, in the run up to the 2016 election.
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