Articles

Hillary Needs More Than An Image Makeover

April 08, 2015

After Hillary Clinton left the State Department in early 2013, her favorable rating was 64% and her unfavorable rating 31% in an April 14 Gallup poll. In a March 4, 2015, Gallup poll, respondents were 50% favorable, 39% unfavorable. That’s not a good trend.

Nevertheless, the Hillary Juggernaut rolls on. She has no significant challenger for the 2016 presidential nomination—though 66% of Democrats in a March 24 CBS poll wanted Mrs. Clinton to face one. 

Her campaign strengths are clear. Raising money, at least from bundlers and events, will be easy. President Obama is in her corner—he needs her to win to protect his legacy. And finally there’s her team. It consists of mostly battle-hardened veterans with a take-no-prisoners toughness, a mix of Obama operatives, key State Department advisers, members of her 2008 campaign apparatus, and some of her husband’s old hands from the 1990s.

Yet each one of these strengths is also a potential weakness.

Money matters, but so does its source. That means there will be more than casual interest in the Clinton Foundation’s acceptance of large foreign donations when she was secretary of state or preparing to run for president.

As for Mr. Obama, he is unlikely to be more popular next year. It will take real skill for Mrs. Clinton to distance herself from his foreign-policy mistakes, given that she ran his State Department in his first administration. She will also suffer from the next wave of dissatisfaction when ObamaCare kicks in for small businesses next year. And what happens if the economic recovery, already slow by historic standards, softens?

John Podesta is the likely chairman of Hillary’s 2016 campaign, once she declares. The former top adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama will have the whip and the will to use it, but even then, it will be difficult to control the disparate elements of his boss’s operation. 

Consider what happened when Mrs. Clinton said she used a private email account to communicate with her husband. One of his aides immediately told a reporter that Mr. Clinton had only sent two emails in his life, neither one of them to his wife. The aide also said that Huma Abedin, one of Mrs. Clinton’s top lieutenants, had asked that her email account be set up on Mr. Clinton’s office server. 

Mrs. Clinton’s biggest challenge may be that she has yet to grasp why she lost in 2008. Her new image adviser, Kristina Schake, appears to believe it’s because she did not appear warm and personable. Ms. Schake helped first lady Michelle Obama deal with a similar problem by having her dance on Ellen DeGeneres’s TV show and work in a White House vegetable garden.

Being warm and personable are important traits for a presidential hopeful, and Mrs. Clinton’s image mavens are right to worry about her appearing cold and inauthentic. But their answer—putting Mrs. Clinton in smaller, more personal events where she is seen in a “softer light”—suggests that they think the problem is settings not substance.

They will soon discover the limits of having Mrs. Clinton discuss her yoga routine on a blog and reveal herself in an appearance on the Food Network, two ideas floated recently. The press would eventually tire of watching Hillary fans toss her softballs over diner tables or in small kaffeeklatsches. These kinds of performances could worsen her already bad relations with the press, a key liberal constituency. 

It could also add to the perception that Mrs. Clinton feels entitled to the Oval Office. Remember that her most personal moment in 2008—when she teared up in a New Hampshire diner—was in response to the question of how she stayed upbeat in the face of political attacks. It’s always about her.

Mrs. Clinton’s main problem in 2008 was lack of a compelling message—and she lacks one now. She has recently tried channeling her inner Elizabeth Warren by talking about income inequality, but her comments had a check-the-box quality. 

She is someone searching for a rationale to run, rather than seeking how best to present it to the public. Mr. Podesta is smart enough to realize this, but slogans and soft lighting can’t substitute for real convictions and an authentic sense of purpose. 

Mrs. Clinton’s run for the White House seems more about personal political ambition than the country’s well being. Aides, consultants and even spouses can’t change that.

A version of this article appeared April 9, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Hillary Needs More Than An Image Makeover and online at WSJ.com.

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