Does Hillary Clinton have an authenticity problem?

Joe Biden’s appearance on Colbert’s Late Show points out why she’s having problems connecting with voters


Sean Illing
September 11, 2015 7:44PM (UTC)

The Joe Biden that appeared on Stephen Colbert last night is the Joe Biden Democrats (and a lot of Republicans) love: honest, open, human and vulnerable. That’s who and what Joe has been his entire political career. And it’s why many people behind the scenes are urging him to jump into the presidential race. This is not one of those 10-reasons-why-Biden-should-run articles, but it’s hard not to think of Hillary Clinton’s authenticity problem after watching Biden on Colbert.

As a candidate, Clinton has a lot of strengths: She’s incredibly smart, undeniably competent, and as experienced as any presidential candidate in modern history. If she has a problem, though, it’s that voters don’t find her terribly authentic. This has been apparent for several months now. In July, an AP poll revealed significant weaknesses among Democrats on a host of issues, including trust, character, and compassion for average Americans – all of these traits, I’d argue, stem from a perceived inauthenticity.

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A recent Quinnipiac poll conducted in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania (the three biggest swing states) suggests Hillary’s numbers aren’t improving. On the question of whether or not “Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy,” 32% of respondents in Florida and Pennsylvania said “yes” and only 34% said she was in Ohio. As Chris Cillizza noted, that means “Only one in three voters in the three largest swing states in the country think that the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination is honest and trustworthy.”

No matter what Hillary’s people say, there’s no way to positively spin these numbers – they’re alarmingly bad. By comparison, Jeb Bush’s numbers on the same question in Ohio and Pennsylvania are 54%. Even Trump polls better in Ohio on the honest/trustworthy question (37%). These results should not surprise anyone, though – especially the Clinton team.

Hillary has a well-earned reputation for guardedness. Having been a target for decades, she’s become overly cautious, afraid to make a mistake in the public sphere. When the over-hyped (but completely avoidable) email story broke, Hillary’s image took an additional hit, and the worst stereotypes about her were confirmed (fairly or not). At this stage, I’m not sure what Clinton could do to change her public perception. But if her campaign doesn’t believe she has a problem, trouble awaits.

Again, the point is not that Biden should run. As much as I like Joe, it’s still not clear to me that he could win if he did decide to run (They’ll be plenty of time to make that case later if he does enter the race). The larger point is that Hillary should take note of Biden’s appeal. It’s not an accident that someone like Donald Trump is resonating with voters: The general electorate is clearly hungry for something authentic, something politically incorrect.

Trump, most of us realize, isn’t a serious candidate – he’s just playing one on TV. But the essence of his appeal lies in his outsider status, in his perceived willingness to tell it like it is. Biden isn’t an outsider, but he feels like one. He doesn’t play the same game as everyone else. When people watch him on Colbert, they know (or at least they believe they know) that’s the real Joe Biden – and that’s precisely what the public wants right now.

It’s also true that Biden’s honesty cuts both ways. The Biden-as-gaffe-machine jokes write themselves. But I think we underestimate how willing people are to forgive someone when they believe he or she’s being honest. In any case, there’s got to be a midpoint on the honesty spectrum between Biden and where Clinton currently lies.

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If I were advising Hillary (and I’m obviously not), I’d suggest that she find that midpoint – it can only help at this point.


Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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2016 Campaign Election News Hillary Clinton Joe Biden News Politics The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

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