Clinton strikes populist tone to make case for 2016 campaign

Updated 3:29 PM EDT, Sat June 13, 2015
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(CNN) —  

Hillary Clinton used the first major rally of her second run for the White House Saturday to make a populist case for her presidential campaign, declaring that the goal of her presidency would be to tip the nation’s economic scales back toward the middle class’s favor.

Clinton used her gender to cast her candidacy as historic and forward-looking. And she used the story of her mother, Dorothy Rodham, to show that she understands the challenges of climbing out of poverty.

RELATED: Read the full transcript of Hillary Clinton’s speech

“Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers. Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations,” she told a crowd of 5,500. “Prosperity and democracy are part of your basic bargain, too. You brought our country back. Now it’s time, your time, to secure the gains and move ahead.”

The rally’s geography, on a narrow island in New York City’s East River, offered a stirring contrast between the towering Manhattan skyline and working-class Queens. It allowed for nods at both Clinton’s experience – the former secretary of state pointed at the United Nations headquarters, and she represented New York as a senator for eight years – and at the economic contrast that was the focus of Clinton’s speech.

Rather than delving into policy specifics, Clinton unveiled a laundry list of issues that her campaign says she’ll address in-depth – one per week – through August.

She touched on a host of Democratic priorities, including increasing the minimum wage, offering paid family leave, implementing equal pay legislation and protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in the workplace. And she said she plans to push measures that would offer tax benefits to companies that invest in long-term growth in the United States, and penalize those that shelter money overseas.

Those issues will be important in a Democratic primary battle where Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s identified himself as a socialist, now represents Clinton’s stiffest challenge.

In perhaps Clinton’s most emotional portion of the speech, she told the story of her mother, Dorothy Rodham, who was abandoned and working on her own as a housemaid by age 14. She said she once asked her mother what kept her going, and her mother’s response was “kindness from someone who believed she mattered.”

“A first-grade teacher who saw she had nothing to eat at lunch, and without embarrassing her, brought extra food to share. The woman whose house she cleaned letting her go to high school so long as her work got done – that was a bargain she leapt to accept,” Clinton said. “And because some people believed in her, she believed in me.”

What Clinton didn’t address stood out, too. The day after House Democrats rejected the free trade agenda of the current Democratic president, Clinton didn’t mention the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While she attacked hedge fund managers, she used the words “Wall Street” just once, despite her proximity to the financial district, and didn’t identify bad actors by naming specific people or firms.

RELATED: In kicking off campaign, Hillary to emphasize more Rodham, less Clinton

Clinton did, though, personalize what she identified as the problems with Washington, and she assigned blame. She hit the Supreme Court, saying the country needs justices “who will protect every citizen’s right to vote rather than every corporation’s right to buy elections.”

And she hit Republicans, including the party’s presidential field, on issues ranging from gay rights to immigration and voting rights. The GOP, she said, will “trip over themselves promising lower taxes for the wealthy and fewer rules for the biggest corporations, without regard for how that will make income inequality even worse.”

“Now there may be some new voices in the presidential Republican choir, but they’re all singing the same old song: A song called ‘Yesterday,’” she said. “You know the one. All our troubles look as though they’re here to stay, and we need a place to hide away. They believe in yesterday.”

The crowd offered Clinton a series of “Hillary, Hillary, Hillary” chants – particularly when she noted the historic nature of her candidacy and potential nomination. More than she did during her 2008 primary campaign, Clinton used her gender to push back against GOP critiques that she represents the past, not America’s future.

“I may not be the youngest candidate in this race,” she said, “but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”

Clinton followed the line with a joke: “You won’t see my hair turn white in the White House. I’ve been coloring it for years.”

’A new moment’

The rally marks Clinton’s departure from the low-key and carefully choreographed small roundtable events that she’s held in the first states to vote in the presidential nominating contest – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – since announcing her candidacy in April.

Supporters began lining up at 6:30 a.m. for a rally that wouldn’t begin until four hours later. Media flocked onto the narrow island, with 550 journalists requesting credentials.

And Clinton’s aides welcomed the attention, billing the rally as the real launch of her campaign – and of the case she’ll make to voters for the next year and a half.

RELATED: Hillary Clinton unleashes attack on Wall Street

“This will be a new moment. We have had the spring training, now it is opening day,” campaign chairman John Podesta told CNN. “I think, for us, this is an opportunity to lay out really the operating manual for where she wants to take the country.”

The entire day focused on Clinton. Although both Bill and Chelsea Clinton attended – the first time either appeared at a campaign event – they did not speak.

Some of Clinton’s high-profile supporters flocked to the city for Saturday’s rally, too.

Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta, told CNN that he decided to attend the event because he wants to “stand with Secretary Clinton.”

“I think that people have really been waiting for this aspect of the campaign to begin,” Reed said. “There is an enormous amount of pent up energy to get on with the campaign and go on out and make the case to folks why she should be the 45th president.”

But well-known New York Democratic figures weren’t treating Clinton as their party’s presumptive nominee.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio didn’t attend the rally in his own backyard, saying he’s waiting for Clinton to present a “larger vision” for tackling income inequality.

Republicans, progressives respond

Republicans, looking to seize on the media attention around Clinton’s event, bussed supporters north from Washington on Saturday morning, with many leaving at 5:45 a.m. They handed out information about Clinton, including red sunglasses that say “Stop Clinton” and “Shady.”

GOP presidential contenders, meanwhile, offered pre-buttals before Clinton even took the stage.

“Hillary Clinton’s re-launch of her campaign doesn’t change that her views are out-of-touch with mainstream America,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement.

“We don’t need Washington telling us what to do; we need to build the economy from the ground up with government getting out of the way,” he said. “Clinton would be a third term of Obama’s failed policies. Instead, we need new, fresh solutions.”

And the reception from liberal groups afterward noted her reluctance to attack Wall Street by name.

“This was mostly a typical Democratic speech – much better than the direction Republicans offer America, but not the bold economic vision that most Americans want and need,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a statement that perturbed Clinton staffers at Saturday’s event.

RELATED: Hillary Clinton channels Roosevelts in first campaign rally

Meanwhile, Bill Hyers, a senior strategist for the presidential campaign of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley – who has positioned himself as a progressive alternative to the former secretary of state – called Clinton’s platform “status quo thinking.”

“We need someone who can bring new leadership, strong progressive values, and a record of getting things done to the White House – and that person is Martin O’Malley,” Hyers said in a statement.

A political festival

The campaign rally was largely organized by Greg Hale, a long-time Clinton aide, who grew up in DeQueen, Arkansas, and met the Clintons when he was young. He started doing advance work for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and is the Clintons’ go-to person for staging events like Saturday’s.

The day’s 75-minute pre-program was filled with symbolic acts and speakers.