ORLANDO — Hillary Clinton has decided it’s about time she do more talking about Hillary Clinton.
After a year and a half of running for president, the Democratic nominee has concluded that many Americans still do not have a clear understanding of what motivates her or what she would do as president. So in the campaign’s home stretch, Clinton is trying to reintroduce herself and her ideas to the country.
Clinton has been unable to break through the cacophony of attacks and counterattacks she and Republican nominee Donald Trump have been yelling at each other. But she tried to do just that here Wednesday with a speech about what she envisions as an “inclusive economy” in which everyone, including the disabled, has a responsibility to contribute and an opportunity to get ahead.
Clinton’s objective is twofold: To lift her sagging approval ratings as well as build trust in her agenda and earn a mandate that could help her, should she be elected, govern in a divided Washington.
“We were hurting in people not understanding enough about her, still, as long as she’s been in the public eye,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director. “People see so much negativity. . . . It’s a lot of destruction, and she felt that people needed to see what she believed the country could aspire to.”
Whether the new approach will translate into fewer attacks on Trump remains to be seen. Clinton is drawn to Trump-bashing most days she appears in public. She talks about Trump and tweets about Trump and runs advertisements about Trump. Defining him as unfit for office is at the core of her strategy to win.
Yet Clinton’s strategists said they believe such messages may not be enough. As David Axelrod, the architect of President Obama’s campaigns, put it: “The danger of that is if Trump finds a way to normalize himself it can be a trap door.”
Clinton’s event in Orlando, orchestrated to spotlight people with disabilities, whose livelihoods Clinton vowed would be “a vital aspect of my presidency,” was a deliberate contrast with Trump, who infamously mocked a disabled reporter last year. Yet Clinton never uttered Trump’s name, or even alluded to him, and instead talked about her own vision for the country.
All month, Clinton has tried to sell herself anew. She published a 288-page book, “Stronger Together,” listing her many policy proposals. Last week in North Carolina, she reflected upon her lifelong commitment to the fight for children and families. And in an address Monday aimed at younger voters — with whom she is particularly struggling to connect — Clinton detailed her plan for debt-free college as well as motivation to right the country’s wrongs.
“Even if you’re totally opposed to Donald Trump, you may still have some questions about me,” Clinton said at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I get that. And I want to do my best to answer those questions. When it comes to public service, the ‘service’ part has always easier for me than the ‘public’ part.”
Still, Clinton’s swipes at Trump tend to draw the loudest applause and biggest headlines. At Monday’s event, when Clinton said, “We have to stand up to this hate,” the crowd erupted and stopped her mid-thought.
“People don’t hear anything but what you say about Trump,” Palmieri said. “If Hillary Clinton gives a speech that’s 75 percent about herself and 25 percent about Donald Trump, [the media] cover the part about Donald Trump.”
It is not simply a problem with the media. Clinton and her campaign have focused so acutely on destroying Trump that Axelrod said they have left a “gaping hole” in their narrative: “Who is she? Why is she running for president? Why should people have trust in her? Why should they feel invested in her candidacy?”
Axelrod said Clinton’s Democratic National Convention was successful in part because the speakers answered those questions. But that was July. “The impact of it faded away,” he said, “and they’ve had a hard time sustaining that story.”
Polling indicates that many of Clinton’s economic policies — including paid leave for employees with children or caring for sick family members, as well as increased spending to lower public college tuition and build or improve infrastructure — have widespread support. In this month’s Washington Post-ABC News poll, 50 percent of registered voters said Clinton is closer to them on the issues, while 41 percent said the same of Trump.
But Clinton is a flawed messenger because of deep character doubts. Just 34 percent of voters said she was honest and trustworthy in the Post-ABC survey, the same share that said the same about Trump.
“Both campaigns can definitely influence the narrative about the other candidate,” said Republican pollster David Winston. “What they struggle to do is get control of their own narrative.”
Palmieri said Clinton’s current series of “Stronger Together” speeches is designed to articulate her values system and vision in a more literal and deliberate way than she has so far. The effort will continue at next Monday’s debate, where Clinton hopes to showcase these ideas before a massive television audience.
“The country is so sick of the back-and-forth negativity of the campaign, and I think voters are hungry for her communicating positively about how she wants to lead the country,” Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg said.
Most Americans by now know that Trump wants to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, deport illegal immigrants and rewrite trade deals. But Clinton lacks a crisp and memorable distillation of her agenda and rationale for her candidacy.
“Voters aren’t going to be able to rattle off her bullet points,” said Anita Dunn, a veteran Democratic strategist. Still, she said, “We’re at a point in the campaign where voters want to hear what candidates are going to do — not just what’s wrong with your opponent, but why you.”
In such a toxic atmosphere of partisanship, some of Clinton’s allies are also urging her to take her rhetoric to a higher plane and show how she would find common ground with her adversaries. Former senator Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), the Democratic Party’s 2000 vice presidential nominee, said there is “a yearning for bipartisan cooperation.”
“It’s conventional wisdom today that negativity wins elections, but it might be a really distinguishing factor if she affirmatively said, ‘I’ve got a record that shows I will work across party lines to break the gridlock in Washington, and I’m going to focus on this if I’m elected,’ ” Lieberman said.
Clinton’s strategy has implications beyond Election Day, should she win.
If she is able to claim a mandate, as opposed to just skating by because she was considered the least bad of two flawed candidates, she would potentially have leverage with a divided Congress. It’s a challenging goal given how much she has framed the election as a referendum on Trump; Clinton risks the result being interpreted as a repudiation of him, rather than a validation of her.
“Elections are really contracts between candidates and the American people, and it really matters what the terms of the contract are,” said William A. Galston, a policy adviser to former president Bill Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“If you don’t say it or you don’t say it in a way that people can hear it and remember it, then when you propose it as one of your first pieces of legislation and hope that there will be some resonance in the country, you’re likely to be disappointed,” Galston said.
Central to Clinton’s ability to claim a governing mandate, let alone win the election, is to rebuild her trust with voters. One way she is trying to do that is by humanizing herself.
Clinton rarely opens up about her Methodist faith, but she talked extensively about it in Kansas City, Mo., a couple weeks ago, and offered humility: “I’ve made my share of mistakes. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t.”
Then, in a speech in Greensboro, N.C., Clinton talked about her friendship with Janelle Turner, a breast-cancer patient who showed up at a Clinton rally last fall in Iowa holding a sign that read: “Thirteenth chemo yesterday. Three more. Hear me roar!”
“Wouldn’t you want to meet the woman behind that sign?” Clinton said. “Well, I sure did. So we got talking, and we’ve stayed in touch. She keeps promising me she’ll see me at the inauguration.”
In her address to millennials in Philadelphia, Clinton reflected upon her activist roots and the values she learned from an early mentor, civil rights lawyer Marian Wright Edelman, and their work with the Children’s Defense Fund. She said those values — driving progress by changing both hearts and laws — would shape her presidency.
“You want something to vote for,” Clinton said, “not just against.”
Emily Guskin in Washington and John Wagner in Philadelphia contributed to this report.