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Unlike Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton Lacks A Simple, Clear Economic Message

"I don't think Hillary Clinton wants to do anything in one sentence," former Obama adviser David Axelrod said. "That's the problem, right?
Yana Paskova
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"I don't think Hillary Clinton wants to do anything in one sentence," former Obama adviser David Axelrod said. "That's the problem, right?

Hillary Clinton isn't over the finish line yet, but as she continues to battle Bernie Sanders she's also turning her attention to a general election matchup with Donald Trump.

A lot of Democrats say that in order to beat Trump, she needs to be developing a clearer message on the economy.

That's not Donald Trump's problem.

Not only does he have a simple, clear message — he often says so himself.

"Our theme is very simple," Trump reminded voters last week after winning the Indiana primary. "Make America great again. We will make America great again. We will start winning again."

Behind that simple message, there are a host of equally simple sounding policies — policies aimed right at Americans' economic insecurities. Build a wall, dump the bad trade deals, deport 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Love those ideas or loathe them, it's crystal clear what Trump wants to do.

Not so much with Clinton.

Asked what, in one sentence, Clinton wants to do, here's what David Axelrod, President Obama's former strategist, said:

"I don't think Hillary Clinton wants to do anything in one sentence," said Axelrod. "That's the problem, right? She wants to do things in paragraphs and pages. This has always been a problem in that she is incredibly fluent in policy, she embraces good policy ideas, but she has a hard time weaving them into a coherent narrative that cuts through."

This isn't the first time Clinton has run against an opponent with a big dramatic message. In 2008, it was "hope" and "change."

This year, both Bernie Sanders and Trump have big plans for change: build a wall, break up the banks, make a political revolution. This is what political professionals call an origin story — a clear rationale for how we got here, and who is to blame for it.

Does Clinton Need An 'Origin Story'?

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says Clinton needs her own origin story. She needs to tell voters why they are struggling.

"Why are we not competitive? Why do we not have manufacturing jobs?" said Lake. "We're Americans after all. We're supposed to be able to ensure the next generation has a better chance. That's why all of our families or most of our families came here. That's why all of our families stayed here."

Clinton has a lot of programs to address the economic worries of what she's called everyday Americans — paid family leave, debt free college, affordable child care. But she rarely sums it all up.

She has been experimenting with one big theme, which she calls "Breaking Down Barriers." It's a message aimed at women, Hispanics and African-Americans.

But she does it in her own policy-wonkish way.

"She's someone who always starts from what you can get done," said her campaign chairman, John Podesta. "What's holding people back? What are the barriers people are facing? Whether that's institutional racism or an economy that's rigged for the people at the top. And what can I do about it? That's where she is not only most comfortable, but I think she thinks that's how change happens."

Clinton's Problem Is Democrats' Problem, Too

Coming up with a clear economic message isn't just a problem for Hillary Clinton. It's a problem for Democrats in general. In Celinda Lake's polls, Democrats are consistently behind Republicans on the issue of the economy. In recent general election polls, where Clinton beats Trump handily in the horse race, the economy is the only issue where he beats her. And the economy is THE No. 1 issue. Democrats have never won a presidential election when they're losing on the economy.

"We're starting from a deficit in that," said Lake.

"So it makes it really, really important to articulate a powerful economic origin story and a plan that sums up to the scale of the problems we have. People love her individual policies, but they want to make sure they add up to something big enough to deal with the incredibly entrenched economic problems we have."

What could be Clinton's big idea?

Debt-free college? A major infrastructure program? She hasn't decided yet.

And she has some challenges. In the fall, she'll be running against an unpredictable populist, with positions that are to her left and to her right.

And she has a gender problem.

Trump beats Clinton on the economy not just because he's a businessman — candidates from the business world get an automatic advantage on creating jobs — but because she's a woman. Lake's polling shows that female candidates from both parties are rated behind men on the economy and jobs. Maybe, Lake suggests, because women are too responsible to go for the big sweeping narrative. Clinton has done a little self-analysis on this problem.

In a podcast with Politico's Glenn Thrush, Clinton said, "sometimes I get criticized for 'Oh my gosh there she goes with another plan.' ... I mean, I have said, in this campaign, 'Look, I'm not a natural politician.'"

"I'm not somebody who, like my husband or Barack Obama, just — it's music, right?"

Clinton often says it's easy to diagnose the problem. It's harder to actually do something about the problem. Coming up with the big aspirational message is her problem and she seems to know that. Clinton has shown she's comfortable with the lyrics. The question is, can she write the music, too?

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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