The strategic goal behind Hillary Clinton's announcement today of an aggressive $70 billion economic stimulus package is to shift the debate onto favorable turf with proposals to improve economic conditions for the increasing number of financially strapped voters -- and away from the Iraq war and Clinton's 2002 vote in favor of the war, a vote which has fueled Obama's candidacy.
Obama has not yet countered Clinton's January 11 economic offensive, but today and yesterday he won a series of endorsements from top Democratic officials -- Senators John Kerry, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Arizona governor Janet Napolitano. These endorsements send a worrisome signal to the Clinton campaign that politicians in these areas judge her as more polarizing than Obama -- more likely to energize the Republican base -- and fear that she could damage the chances of local Democrats on the ballot next November.
Clinton's economic policy announcement is a direct outgrowth of the January 8 New Hampshire primary. Clinton's strategists are convinced that the recent rise in unemployment and the manufacturing slowdown, which voters have been paying growing attention to over the winter, played to her strengths in the Granite State. Aides believe that, combined with a surge of support among women, Clinton's 'crying' incident, and the possible role of race in bringing white voters to the New York senator's side, they see the makings of a reconfigured strategy to carry the campaign forward.
This approach would emphasize the virtues of her experience and the economic success of Bill Clinton's two administrations, to undermine Obama's more abstract message of hope and unity.
Today, Clinton proposed the following economic measures: housing assistance, especially to those threatened by foreclosure; energy assistance to poor and moderate income households; and extended unemployment insurance. This investment in "growing" the economy could, if deemed necessary, be quickly followed by a $40 billion tax rebate for low-income workers which would include cash payments in the form of a refundable tax credit to those whose income is so low that they do not pay taxes.
While Clinton is moving quickly to stake out her economic positions, Obama is touting his three new major endorsements.
There is no real certainty among political observers about the motivations behind Kerry's decision, whose announcement received the most publicity. Speculation ranged from the view that Kerry has made an impartial assessment of the strengths of Clinton and Obama, to more skeptical analyses arguing that Kerry remains deeply ambitious and is backing the candidate he sees as least likely to win in November, thus increasing his own chances to run in 2012.
Johnson, however, has no presidential ambitions, and has been scarred by seeing his fellow South Dakota Democratic Senator, Tom Daschle, go down to defeat in 2004. His endorsement of Obama, in this view, is based on a judgment that in his state, Clinton -- with her persistently high negatives -- would be more damaging to down-ballot Democrats than Obama.
Johnson reinforced this interpretation in his endorsement announcement:
"I'm supporting Senator Barack Obama in his race for the presidency because he is in a unique position to reach across party lines and unite our country," Johnson said. "As a red state Senator fighting for common ground, I look forward to working with a President who is more concerned with good ideas than partisan bickering, and I believe Senator Obama is that person."
Like Kerry, Napolitano could have mixed motives. Democrats are making substantial gains in Arizona and she, like Johnson, says she has concluded that Obama would do better down-ballot than Clinton in her state, which is steadily turning from red to pink, if not to purple. "I think he's a new young voice who has new appeal, particularly for those of us in the West," she told the Washington Post.
At the same time, Napolitano, a popular mountain-state politician, could be among those considered for a vice presidential slot by Obama, especially since the mountain states are a key Democratic target this year. It is virtually certain that Clinton would not pick a female running mate. Conversely, that is not out of the question for Obama, and Napolitano would likely be those on a list of possible running mates.