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Five women and five answers about the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton

We ask experts and activists why the prospect of female president of the United States does not draw the same excitement Obama’s campaign did

The United States has made history: one of the country’s two major political parties has chosen a woman as its presidential candidate. Hillary Clinton already has more than the necessary number of delegates to seize the Democratic Party nomination and run in November’s presidential election. This milestone comes just eight years after an African American man got the country excited enough to write a new page in history. Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States. But, Clinton’s achievement is drawing far less excitement than Obama’s campaign did in 2008. We have asked five women to explain why.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Los Angeles, California.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Los Angeles, California. AFP

 1. “She could connect with more voters if she showed that she is one of us ”

Angela Kelley, executive director of the Center for American Progress.

These are such kooky elections, so unusual, that the fact that Donald Trump has become the Republican candidate is something many people are still trying to come to terms with. It’s important to remember what this means. He has become such an obsession for the media that, whatever another candidate says, he is silent by comparison. This has totally eclipsed the gender issue in these elections and, even when it is mentioned, it is also with regards to the way Trump has spoken so aggressively against women.

It’s a difficult election cycle to evaluate. There has been a lot of debate about how an old white man [Bernie Sanders] could get so many young people excited, and that also overshadows Clinton’s possibilities. If we turned the situation around, if we had had a woman as president over the last eight years, we would be having the same conversation now about the lack of enthusiasm for a black president.

There is also a generational factor. For me, to see a woman leading in her party’s primaries is something that I have waited for for a long time, and I was never sure that I would get to see it. But when I tell that to my daughters, who are 15 and 19, they think I’m kidding. It’s obvious to them. The younger generation already expects that because they have grown up with an African American in the White House for the last eight years. For me, those are the key reasons.

But the gender issue, especially how negatively Trump speaks about women, will continue to be part of the election. I just hope she does a better job at showing her connection to half the population in this country, the challenges that she has overcome... It would help her to speak as a citizen, not so much as a politician. What is happening with these elections is that emotion is playing an important role. They are very emotional. There is anger, fear. She could connect with more voters if she showed that she is one of us. Maybe she thinks she has to show that she knows her stuff and that she has all the credentials but sharing more about herself would have helped her.

2. “Hillary Clinton is seen as part of a system that has stopped working for a lot of people”

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed and director of The Good Life Initiative.

To really understand what’s going on with voters and why Hillary Clinton has failed to generate the wild enthusiasm and optimism that one would hope would accompany the possibility of the first woman US president, all you have to do is look at a few telling graphs. One graph would show a continuous climb in US worker productivity over the past few decades. Another how, at the same time, worker wages have stagnated. And then another graph would show the wildly steep climb in corporate profits and in CEO compensation – top earners now make roughly 455 times what the average American worker makes, Fortune magazine reported recently.

So there’s real anger and frustration and a sense of betrayal among voters that both Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right have tapped. Voters want something new and both are seen as outsiders. Voters were angry and afraid in 2008 during the recession as well, but Barack Obama was embraced as a fresh face, as an outsider who’d clean up the mess the insiders of the George W. Bush administration left behind. And that’s what hurts Hillary Clinton the most.

While polls show that voters who value experience are squarely in her camp, what’s overshadowing this potentially historic moment is the fact that she’s seen as part of the old establishment, an insider in a system that not only no longer functions for most people, but makes them feel actively excluded from it, that she’s seen as an incremental policy wonk who plays it safe, not the crusader promising to blow up the system that has created such vast and growing economic inequality and start over.

3. “Bernie Sanders’ positions are better for women”

Katie Halper, columnist for Feministing and author of the podcast The Katie Halper Show.

There certainly is less excitement around the potential election of the first female president than there was around the first African American president. Of course some voters’ rejection of Hillary Clinton is based on sexism but that doesn’t fully explain the difference since some voters in 2008 were motivated by racism. Among the voters who would embrace a female and black president, the enthusiasm gap is related to the individual candidates and not the issue of gender or race.

Though Clinton’s gender would make her election a historic one, she has very little of the outsider, underdog, and American Dream-fulfilling appeal that Barack Obama had. Despite claims to the contrary from Clinton and some of her supporters, she is indisputably part of the political establishment and is one half of the country’s most famous political marriage. Obama was younger, hadn’t fulfilled a full senate term and had to overcome several obstacles throughout his life. His opponents, including the Hillary Clinton campaign, did their best to paint him as an outsider, un-American, foreign, outside the mainstream and the norm.

In full disclosure, I wasn’t that excited about Clinton or Obama in 2008. I found Obama’s speech about purple America hokey and cringe-inducingly post-partisan. What made me an Obama supporter was the guilt-by-association smear campaign against him for his connection to Jeremiah Wright. How much Obama wound up challenging the political establishment is another issue.

Clinton, on the other hand, was an active and hands-on first lady of Arkansas, the United States, a New York Senator and, this time around, secretary of state. But for feminists like me, there is something particularly cynical and dangerous about the way Clinton’s campaign is using gender and identity politics to silence legitimate and often feminist criticism of her.

To be clear it’s disingenuous or ill-informed to claim that Clinton doesn’t face sexism or double standards as a woman. At the same time, Clinton and her supporters are in many cases hijacking feminism by framing criticism of her or even support of Bernie Sanders as sexist or misogynist. Bernie Sanders may be a man, but his positions, ranging from a higher minimum wage to a less hawkish foreign policy, are better for women.

4. “Clinton doesn't have is a narrative of improbability or surprise”

Michelle Kinsey-Bruns, pro-choice activist and writer.

Enthusiasm can be hard to quantify, but in politics, there is one empirical measure that we can use as a proxy. That measure is votes. To date in the 2016 primary process, over three million more citizens have cast votes for Hillary Clinton than for Bernie Sanders, and over one-and-a-half million more for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump.

What Clinton doesn’t have is a narrative of improbability, or of surprise. Her many decades as a highly visible figure in policy and politics mean that, even despite her gender, she’ll never be an outlier like Sanders, a gatecrasher like Trump – or even a bright shiny newcomer like Obama was, just one nominating convention before the one that put him on the presidential ballot. Clinton’s been getting the work done for longer than many of the pundits dissecting her campaign have been alive. If a four-decade history of steady competence, effectiveness, and dedication doesn’t provide the raw material for “buzz,” it may be exactly what is needed for the leadership of the nation.

5. “The president’s record will continue to affect Clinton until she presents a vision that distinguishes her”

Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

The possibility of having a woman as president of the United States for the first time is exciting and it would be a great historic step for our country. There may be many reasons why that excitement has not been as palpable as it was during the 2008 Obama campaign, even while keeping in mind that the most intense part of the campaign is yet to come.

If we have seen a lack of enthusiasm around the Democratic frontrunner, former secretary Hillary Clinton, it could be that many consider that a victory for Clinton would mean extending Obama’s immigration policies, instead of a more progressive vision. That would be very difficult for the immigrant communities that have been very affected by higher deportation rates under the current administration than previous generations and also, lately, by deportations of mothers and children who came to this country to take shelter from the incessant violence in Central America.

Despite the limited progress that the administration has made to set up more humane and cautious immigration policies with Obama’s executive actions (like deferred action under DACA and DAPA), the president’s record will continue to affect Clinton until she presents a vision that distinguishes her from Obama. Although Clinton has said that she would not deport children, she needs to denounce President Obama’s policies, especially recent detention and deportation of mothers and children who are fleeing the violence. She also needs to introduce her plan to reform the immigration system and do more to regain the confidence of the community if she wants to inspire the community in general, and immigrant women in particular, to vote for her.

English version by Dyane Jean François.