NEW YORK—Seven years after conceding that her historic attempt to become the first female president had come up just short, Hillary Clinton on Saturday “officially” kicked off her second try.
“You brought our country back. Now it’s time, your time, to secure the gains and move ahead. And, you know what? America can’t succeed unless you succeed,” Clinton said in praise of her once-rival, once-boss, President Obama. “That is why I am running for president of the United States.”
Clinton has been laying the groundwork for this run for years, and started her actual campaign in April with a two-minute Web video. She has spent the subsequent weeks conducting relatively small events in the early voting states. Saturday’s 45-minute address before a crowd of 5,500 was her campaign’s effort to signal that the next phase had begun.
“We’ve had spring training. Now it’s Opening Day,” said John Podesta, her campaign chairman.
If nothing else, the event showed off the presidential-caliber stagecraft of her operation. The event was set on the southern tip of the East River’s Roosevelt Island, named after Democratic hero Franklin Roosevelt. Over one shoulder as she spoke was the United Nations building—a reference to her years as secretary of State. Over the other was One World Trade Center, a symbol of the nation’s rebound from the Sept. 11 attacks.
The exact location was Four Freedoms Park, a reference to the famous Roosevelt speech in 1941. Clinton on Saturday promised “four fights,” if elected: for an economy to help the middle class, for workplace changes to strengthen families, for a foreign policy and military to keep America safe from threats, and for changes to campaign finance rules to ban secret, “unaccountable money.”
“It’s no secret that we’re going up against some pretty powerful forces that will do and spend whatever it takes to advance a very different vision for America,” Clinton said. “But I’ve spent my life fighting for children, families, and our country. And I’m not stopping now.”
Clinton’s remarks reflect today’s Democratic Party, with calls for more leave time for employees, marriage equality for gay partners, tax-code revisions to benefit working families, equal pay for women, cheaper college tuitions, universal pre-kindergarten, and higher fees on “fossil fuel extraction” to help pay for the development of “clean” energy.
She continued Obama’s push on immigration with a call for a path citizenship for immigrants in this country illegally—not merely a path to “legal status” that’s supported by some Republicans.
Republicans and what they support, in fact, was a major theme for Clinton, who argued that the changes started by Obama could be lost under a GOP administration.
“Now, there may be some new voices in the presidential Republican choir, but they’re all singing the same old song—a song called ‘Yesterday.’ You know the one: ‘All our troubles look as though they’re here to stay, and we need a place to hide away.’ They believe in yesterday,” Clinton said, and then joked: “And you’re lucky I didn’t try singing that.”
Clinton also tried humor to preempt a criticism from both Republicans and some Democrats that at 67, she cannot bring forward the new ideas the country needs.
“All our presidents come into office looking so vigorous. And then we watch their hair grow grayer and grayer. Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States, and the first grandmother as well,” Clinton said. “And one additional advantage: You’re won’t see my hair turn white in the White House. I’ve been coloring it for years.”
This is Clinton’s first significant speech since she launched her campaign two months ago, and comes nearly three months earlier in the election cycle as the analogous “kickoff” speech in the 2008 campaign. That one was delivered on Labor Day weekend in Concord, New Hampshire, and focused on her readiness for the presidency as well as criticism of President George W. Bush. She outlined four “re-” goals in that campaign: restoring American leadership in the world, rebuilding the middle class, reforming the government, and reclaiming the future “for our children.”
In 2007, with then-Senate colleague Obama generating enthusiasm with the promise of “change,” Clinton pushed the slogan “change plus experience.”
“With me, you don’t have to choose,” she said.
What she did not speak about much eight years ago was her personal story—a result of a conscious decision by her top strategist, Mark Penn. He insisted that attempting to “humanize” her would damage the image they needed to sell to male voters, which was that she was absolutely ready to be commander in chief.
Clinton on Saturday touched on her readiness for that role, reminding her audience that she was in the White House Situation Room during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. “As your president, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep Americans safe,” she said.
But Clinton’s campaign this time around is making a point of emphasizing her personal side. Clinton spoke about her mother, how she’d been abandoned by her own parents, and how at 14 she’d gone out to become a maid in other people’s houses so that she could keep going to high school.
“My mother taught me that everybody needs a chance and a champion. She knew what it was like not to have either one,” she said.
Podesta said the campaign is taking nothing for granted. “We’re going to fight for every vote, and for every delegate. The other candidates will have their moment, they’ll have their appeal,” he said.
He acknowledged, though, that the field this time does not include someone like Obama, who by this stage in the race eight years ago had matched Clinton’s $50 million in fundraising. “Well, there’s no one like Barack Obama. Having worked for the guy, I know that for sure,” said Podesta, who served as a top adviser in Obama’s White House.
The other Democrats in the race are not ready to concede anything.
As the thousands of ticketed supporters gathered for Clinton at the tip of Roosevelt Island, Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared in Des Moines to open an Iowa headquarters—in the same building where Clinton has her Iowa headquarters.
And Bill Hyers, a senior adviser for Martin O’Malley, said the former Maryland governor should not be counted out either, despite polling that shows him in the low single digits. “He’s willing to go there and grind it out,” Hyers said. “Iowa has a long history of beating people who thought they were going to win.”
This story has been updated.