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Dreams From My Mother: Clinton To Look To Mom In Campaign Kickoff

In this 2007 file photo, Dorothy Rodham campaign with her daughter, then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in Iowa
Paul Sancya
Associated Press
In this 2007 file photo, Dorothy Rodham campaign with her daughter, then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in Iowa

Hillary Clinton's campaign kickoff will draw inspiration from her late mother as she seeks to lay out her vision for America.

By detailing the struggles her mother, Dorothy Rodham, went through, the Democratic presidential hopeful will detail Saturday in New York why she's seeking out reforms and priorities for families, telling everyday Americans, "It is your time."

It's the kind of rhetoric that helped elect President Obama twice. He made the focus of his campaigns, especially his reelection, income inequality, which Republicans derided as "class warfare."

The emphasis on the personal also comes at a time when Clinton's favorability ratings have been slipping.

Clinton has been trying to make the appeal to the "Obama coalition" since officially announcing she was running for president in April. The former secretary of state has already pushed for universal automatic voter registration, criminal justice reform, equal pay for women, immigration and is also examining a way to approach student loan reform. All are issues of special importance to younger voters, Hispanic and African-American voters and single women.

Clinton will outline her priorities for the campaign Saturday, emphasizing that America's success shouldn't be defined by the top income earners, but instead by families and how they are recovering from the economic crisis. Now, she says, it's their time to be rewarded, arguing that prosperity shouldn't just be for the CEOs and the hedge-fund managers, but is for everyday Americans.

Clinton will also trace her own personal history, noting she was heavily influenced by lessons she learned from her mother, Dorothy, who died in 2011, but was a fixture on the campaign trail with her daughter in 2008.

As Clinton detailed in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, her mother's "own childhood was marked by trauma and abandonment." With parents unable to care for them, Dorothy and her sister were sent to California to live with their grandparents. But trapped in a "severe and unloving" household, Dorothy moved out at 14 to work as a nanny and housekeeper. It was there that one of her employers encouraged her to finally graduate from high school. Dorothy attempted to reconcile with her mother back in Chicago but was spurned.

Clinton described her own reaction to learning about her mother's difficult past:

When I got old enough to understand all this, I asked my mother how she survived abuse and abandonment without becoming embittered and emotionally stunted. How did she emerge from this lonely early life as such a loving and levelheaded woman? I'll never forget how she replied. "At critical points in my life somebody showed me kindness," she said. Sometimes it would seem so small, but it would mean so much—the teacher in elementary school who noticed that she never had money to buy milk, so every day would buy two cartons of milk and then say, "Dorothy, I can't drink this other carton of milk. Would you like it?" Or the woman who hired her as a nanny and insisted that she go to high school. One day she noticed that Mom had only one blouse that she washed every day. "Dorothy, I can't fit into this blouse anymore and I'd hate to throw it away. Would you like it?" she said.

It's a more personal side of Clinton, who has spent nearly 30 years in the national spotlight. In the early stages of the 2008 campaign, Clinton was a stoic, hard-charging figure. Then-Sen. Barack Obama famously joked in a debate with Clinton, "You're likable enough, Hillary." But after that remark and after Clinton teared up with her candidacy on the rocks days before New Hampshire primary, Clinton went on to a surprise win in the key early state.

Now, she's seeking to reintroduce herself, explaining her mother's belief that a child needs someone in their corner to help them succeed, which has been the guiding force in her life from her days as an attorney at the Children's Defense Fund to her tenure as First Lady to her time at the State Department.

Clinton Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri said that while the former first lady is certainly no stranger to voters or the public, it's still important for her to lay out her personal values and vision.

"She is a well-known figure, but when you're asking the American people to support you as president, even if it is for the second time, there is no skipping of steps," Palmieri said. "If you want to understand Hillary Clinton, and what has motivated her career of fighting for kids and families, her mother is a big part of the story. The example she learned from her mother's story is critical to knowing what motivated Hillary Clinton to first get involved in public service, and why people can count on her to fight for them and their families now."

It's an important distinction Clinton needs to make now, too, as her own personal favorability ratings have declined since she got into the race. Though she still leads her Democratic rivals for the nomination — Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee — her edge against potential GOP rivals has dwindled.

In a CNN survey last week, the number of people who said she is not honest and trustworthy rose, while those who said Clinton cares about people like them is down. And a Washington Post poll put Clinton's favorability at its lowest in seven years, since she made her first run for president.

While those numbers are far from fatal this early, it's still a sign of trouble her campaign is working on early to curb. They've also been hampered by controversies involving her use of a private email server while at the State Department and questions about donations to the Clinton Foundation. Since making her bid official with a video in April, she's answered very few questions from the press, too.

But what her campaign has been trying to push, and is underscored in the early preview of the tone she'll take on Saturday, is that this is a more relatable Clinton. In launching her first Instagram post this week, she declared herself a "doting grandmother."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.