Out of the Woods: Can Hillary Clinton pass likability test this time?
They say history repeats itself.
Do you recall that memorable moment during the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate on Jan. 5, 2008 when a news anchor at the local TV station WMUR in New Hampshire, popped the $64 million question to Hillary Clinton that was high on the public’s mind? “What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on this stage tonight, who see a resume and like it but are hesitating on the likability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more (than you])” he asked.
Clinton stood with a fixed smile through the question before answering, after a long pause, “Well ... that hurts my feelings.”
The anchor replied: “I'm sorry, senator. I'm sorry."
Clinton: “But I'll try to go on. He's (Obama) very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad.”
At that point, Obama added grudgingly with a slight smirk: "You're likable enough.” It was an unforgettable line and everyone took notice.
Clinton, still smiling, decided to take the faint praise as if it were a genuine compliment: “Thank you so much. I appreciate that.”
Clinton fought back in the polls to win the New Hampshire primary a few days later and, while she didn't ultimately overcome the turnout in the overall primary race against Obama, by the time the contests were over, she did earn 17.7 million votes — just 151,000 fewer than her rival, the future president.
Despite the bitterness of their tight race, Obama and Clinton made up and she accepted his offer for her to serve as secretary of state. That role further enhanced Clinton's reputation as a world statesman, making her in the eyes of most political observers, Obama's likely successor.
However, as we head into 2016, instead of a youthful, charismatic 47-year-old, liberal Obama, this time a 73-year-old charismatic, socialist independent senator from Vermont is giving Clinton a stiff challenge
Bernie Sanders has aroused enormous crowds of young people — especially those on the left — to come out in droves to revive the liberal movement that has almost became dormant under Hillary Clinton as an establishment candidate. She is vulnerable and Sanders is filling the vacuum. He has been breathing down her neck in New Hampshire and Iowa.
The reasons: There has been a steady flow of sharp, unrelenting criticism from conservatives over Clinton's use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state, which allowed her to delete thousands of messages she says were personal. The allegations — still unproven — is that her desire for privacy may have compromised classified material.
That issue adds to the questions about what she knew of the security threat at Benghazi before and therefore might have done to prevent the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. In the minds of some highly partisan Republicans, the controversy rises to the point where it could be argued the lives of American diplomats were lost in Benghazi because of Clinton's lax handling of the tragedy.
It really comes down to something more important than likeability. The pundits call it “trust.” Unfortunately for Clinton, when voters were asked recently for the first word that came into their minds when they thought of her, the top answer was “liar.” When the same question was asked about Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, they said “arrogant.” The comparison is troubling.
Still, Democrats are worried their once overwhelmingly favorite nominee may not be a certainty any more. With just five months to go until the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire once again start the process of selecting the next U.S. president, the challenge for Clinton is to loosen up and be herself, stop trying to laugh off her troubles, and respond to her critics like the president she wants to be. She still has time to be earn back the “likable enough” title Obama once gave her. Moreover, she has launched a new “Southern strategy” in which she hopes to wrap up enough delegates to sweep the Super Tuesday states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia, and give her a substantial lead. She will need it to boost her popularity.
She was nothing like her husband, whom I also met and had interviewed during one of his previous fundraisers in Westport. He was all-consuming, reaching out with his huge hands, his arms around me in a bear hug, as if I was a long-lost friend, his contagious smile from ear to ear. His warmth radiated our conversation, which he dominated. He praised Westport to the sky. He had visited here before and raved about how impressed he was with this town. In a word, he made me feel good. What a contrast with Hillary!
In short, Hillary, in my opinion is too lawyerly, too careful, too selective with her words, too cautious. I think she is competent and could, without a doubt, run our country. But at this point, I’d rather vote for somebody more personally likable. Joe Biden? Sure. Unless Hillary Clinton softens her uptight image, she will be hard to support. I suspect many Westport Democrats may have the same unsettling feeling.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His “Out of the Woods” column appears every other Friday in the Westport News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.