When Hillary Clinton returned to the campaign trail recently on behalf of her friend and fund raiser Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, she was a political novice only in jest.
“I’ve been out of politics for a few years now,” Clinton said, to laughter, “and I’ve had a chance to think a lot about what makes our country so great.”
True, Clinton was coming off of a nearly five-year political hiatus, four years of which she spent touring the world as secretary of state, a position that legally cannot involve political work.
But Clinton is no neophyte on the scene — and the public is now systematically being reminded, somewhat to her detriment, of Clinton’s political past as she re-emerges gradually as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
In addition to McAuliffe, Clinton endorsed Bill DeBlasio, who ran her 2000 Senate campaign, for mayor in New York. She has traversed the country to collect awards and hone her public message. And she has reconnected with big-ticket donors at a range of functions, some to raise money for her family’s eponymous foundation.
As Clinton transitions back from diplomat to Democrat, she has lost some of her statesman sheen despite her overbearing control of all public appearances and interviews.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Clinton’s positive rating now at 46 percent — equal to her positive rating in June 2008, when she conceded the Democratic nomination for president to Barack Obama after a drawn-out, taxing, often acrimonious campaign. Meanwhile, roughly one-third of people now perceive her negatively.
When Obama made Clinton secretary of state in February 2009 her popularity rebounded, with 59 percent of the public viewing her positively. She concluded her tenure in January 2013 with a comparably positive rating, 56 percent.
Clinton has gone to great lengths to prevent such a slide in approval since resigning as the nation's top diplomat. Her aides have blocked the media from many of the paid speeches she's been giving and, in some cases, went so far as to confiscate cell phones and recording devices. Clinton has granted only a handful of interviews since leaving office, and those were only for stories that portrayed her in a positive light.
The mere act of returning to politics, however, has likely contributed to her slipping numbers. In the political sphere, Clinton appears more as a skilled operator than a diplomat, vulnerable to the partisan pitfalls of the campaign trail that tend to reduce the public's opinion of all players.
During four years as secretary of state, Clinton sat above that political fray and traveled far from it — more than 950,000 miles in total, a statistic she and others invoke often as a mark of her broad reach and success. She weathered only one prominent controversy, over the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and responded to that with a charged testimony before a congressional committee that won her broad approval.
“I’ve spent four years traveling across the globe — a great honor and privilege to represent all of you,” Clinton touted at McAuliffe’s recent campaign event, a line typical of her emerging stump speech. “I’ve learned even more about what it takes to make good decisions, what it takes to bring people together. … I’ve seen leaders who are divisive, and I’ve seen leaders who are unifiers. I’ve seen leaders who are exclusive, and I’ve seen leaders who are inclusive. Recently in Washington, unfortunately, we have seen examples of the wrong kind of leadership.”
That Image of Clinton as a jet-setting peacemaker will be the one she strives to evoke in the months ahead. But the setting brings to mind the other Hillary Clinton, whether it helps her or not.
“I’ve been in a lot of elections —” Clinton began at McAuliffe’s rally, before she was cut off by applause and cheers. She laughed, tilted her head to the side with a smile, and let the crowd roar.