Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shown with Obama on July 29. (Getty)
Hillary Clinton now appears to be the odds-on choice to be elected president in 2016. Yet she faces very serious challenges in her quest to win the nation’s highest office.
To be sure, she holds a substantial lead in polls against her most likely Democratic primary opponent, Vice President Joe Biden, and she leads against each and every potential Republican general election opponent. Republicans themselves acknowledge Clinton’s strength, with Newt Gingrich saying that the GOP “is incapable of competing” in 2016 if she is the Democratic nominee and Rep. Peter King commenting that Clinton would “destroy” GOP hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republican “isolationists.”
And with yet another private get-together between Clinton and the president last week — they had lunch on Monday on the patio outside the Oval Office — it is surely reasonable to think that her potential run in 2016 may be a topic of conversation between the two.
Still, the challenges Clinton faces are formidable, and unless she articulates a clear and compelling rationale for her own possible candidacy well before the general election campaign begins, her candidacy could be upended before it begins.
For starters, Clinton has to contend now, and most likely in the future, with President Barack Obama’s declining poll ratings, which could well be an obstacle in her path. And while the president remains very popular with Democrats, his ratings in the past few months with the overall electorate have dropped below 50 percent in recent approval-rating polls. His specific ratings on the economy and foreign policy have fallen closer to 40 percent and show no signs of improving.
Meanwhile, his signature achievement — Obamacare — is at its low point in the polls, with close to 60 percent of Americans wanting it either significantly rolled back or repealed entirely.
Worse yet for Clinton, with the ongoing scandals over Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service, The Associated Press and the National Security Agency, she probably will not be able to run on the Obama record — if anything, she will have to distance herself from it.
And even though her time as secretary of state is largely viewed as a success, it’s an amorphous one: She has no lasting accomplishment in the diplomatic realm to fall back on.
Clinton, therefore, needs to take immediate action to address these challenges and must do so before the 2016 campaign season gets into full swing. Without challenging the president directly, she must make it clear that she will take the country in a fundamentally different direction from the current administration.
First and foremost, Clinton needs to develop an overarching agenda rooted in the key problems facing America — the problems for which neither party has offered any clear solutions in either the last election cycle or the first year of Obama’s second term.
Obama is making a late summer push on the economy. But his remarks thus far are largely a restatement of his previously articulated policy prescriptions. The problem for the president is that American people have largely judged his approach a failure — having given consistently negative marks to the stimulus and his healthcare policy.
It follows that Clinton needs to systematically address the economy and jobs in a way that resonates with an increasingly frustrated electorate. Neither party is addressing the central challenge America faces: a weakened economy that, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, 52 percent of Americans believe is in recession.
With unemployment stuck at around 7.5 percent and underemployed and discouraged workers together at almost the same high level, Clinton needs a realistic and practical job-creation agenda that can unite Democrats and appeal to independents and some Republicans.
With signs that economic growth in America is stagnating, the central theme of the Clinton reemergence must be revitalizing the economy with a coherent set of pro-growth policies: reforming and streamlining an antiquated Tax Code; providing incentives for business to invest, particularly in areas of high unemployment; and ensuring the stability and continued vitality of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security with a fiscally prudent plan to balance the federal budget.
Clinton must also move beyond Obama’s arguably moving personal statement about Trayvon Martin and offer clear and unambiguous policies to address the very serious challenges facing urban America, which the president has simply not done: persistently high unemployment in the black and Hispanic population, especially teenage unemployment; declining levels of home ownership; and the larger issue of the whole tangled pathology of single-parent households, which have come to predominate in minority communities.
Young people are the core constituency that elected Obama twice — and in America, those under 30 simply do not have a chance at achieving the same success as their parents. Even if you look just at student loans, a small piece of the challenge affecting younger people, total outstanding loans topped $1 trillion for the first time in 2011.
That’s a tremendous amount to pay back, especially with so few available jobs. Unless Clinton develops an agenda that speaks directly to young people’s needs and concerns, she will fall short.
More generally, she needs to develop a unifying agenda that seeks to reduce economic inequality, which has reached all-time highs, through growth-oriented policies. This cannot be done through redistributive policies of the type Obama repeatedly articulates.
Rather, it can be accomplished only with an agenda focusing on economic growth, tax reform and energy independence through the continued development of a multifaceted domestic energy industry — the kind of agenda that can attract a critical mass of support in both parties. She needs to move off fairness and redistribution to emphasize growth and tax policies that encourage investment.
Such an agenda would offer a stark, and arguably welcome, contrast with the administration’s incoherent populist program dedicated to more stimulus, higher taxes and, ultimately, redistribution of wealth.
Rather than dividing and polarizing America, as both parties have done, Clinton needs to take a different approach. She must emphasize the essential unity and singularity of the American experience in promoting a new and attainable American dream.
To be sure, this will have different specific policy components for various groups: enterprise zones for impoverished communities, immigration reform and a renewed commitment to vocational training and community colleges to give everyone a fair shot at succeeding. She also will have to emphasize training and retraining for workers who have been marginalized by the current economy.
This approach would stand in sharp contrast to the president’s, with his recent emphasis on redistribution above all else and very little talk of tax reform and economic growth. While Obama has been hiding behind terms like “broken Washington” and “ineffective government,” Clinton has the opportunity to offer specificity and a clear, long-term vision for America.
Beyond America’s borders, Clinton needs to go back to the approach she took on foreign policy before her presidential campaign, when she spoke clearly and directly about coercive diplomacy.
The United States has increasingly found itself in a weakened position, whether in Middle East hot spots like Egypt and Syria or toward rogue states like North Korea and Iran. NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s quest for asylum only accentuates the impression of an administration playing catch up on the international stage.
Politicians typically fight the last war. In the next campaign, Clinton will most likely be sadly mistaken if she thinks that trying to reprise the Obama 2012 campaign will maximize her chances of victory.
Obama, after all, got only 51 percent of the vote running against a particularly inept candidate whose résumé and rhetoric directly played into the president’s class-based campaign.
It may well help her in the primaries to have a super PAC run by two aging veterans of the Democratic left, Harold Ickes and James Carville, and staffed by two young veterans of the Obama campaign, Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart, but it provides little confidence that Clinton is planning to develop the type of inclusive, growth-oriented, optimistic message she will need in 2016.
Put simply, Clinton must provide clear evidence that she understands more than just the suffering the American people have faced in these past few difficult years. She must transcend Washington’s deepening partisan divisions and speak fundamentally about the need to unify and revitalize America with a set of policies that put her not on the left or the right but above the current political divide.
That’s how she can win.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist, Fox News contributor, and author of several books including the recently released, "Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What It Means for 2012 and Beyond" (Rowman and Littlefield). Read more reports from Doug Schoen — Click Here Now.
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