Sometime Thursday night, Hillary Clinton will walk onto a stage in Philadelphia to formally accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. The crowd will go wild, as it always does at this moment in a political convention. People will cheer and wave signs. Maybe someone will bring a few vuvuzelas into the arena, in which case, God help anyone trapped in there with them.
It will be a historic moment: the first time a woman has topped the ticket for a major party’s presidential nomination. Considering our nation took nearly 150 years to even grant women the right to vote, there is no denying the symbolism of a woman knocking down one more artificial barrier that America has erected in front of half of its population. And whatever you think of her, there is no denying that Hillary Clinton will have climbed an Everest-sized mountain of shit to reach that summit.
Clinton will have been preceded by one night by President Obama, who will speak to the convention on Wednesday evening. Having accomplished a great deal in office while overseeing the Democratic Party’s moving further left, the president is said to see Clinton’s potential presidency as a vehicle to partly carry on his own legacy, to build on the foundation he has laid and perhaps find solutions that he couldn’t to other problems. This makes sense, of course. The differences between Clinton and Obama were always more about temperament than policy positions. Now Obama is coming to the end of his time in office with an approval rating above 50 percent, and historians will likely be very kind to his presidency.
Clinton will also have been preceded by Bernie Sanders, who spoke on Monday. Sanders’s was a masterful version of his usual stump speech, tying Clinton to the political platform he has pushed for over a year, and to which a large and vocal segment of the left has attached itself. If the left can keep up the enthusiasm that it has carried throughout the primaries, and if Clinton wins in November, she will be expected to address many of its concerns while in office.
So this is the irony that struck me as I watched Sanders speak on Monday night: that should she take the oath of office next January, Clinton will do so with the considerable shadows of these two men hovering over her, one of whom will lead a restive left pushing her on policy, while trying to carve out her own legacy, to govern on her own terms.
And that made me think of the famous line about Ginger Rogers, and how she had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels.
All presidents enter office facing unique challenges, of course. Obama came into office in the middle of the biggest financial crisis the world had seen in 80 years. Richard Nixon entered office in the middle of a war that had seemingly split the country down the middle. Lyndon Johnson had to steer the country through its shock in the wake of John Kennedy’s assassination. And on and on.
Clinton will have plenty on her own plate: climate change, ISIS and terrorism, declining wages, historic wealth inequality. And to help her face these challenges, she’ll have a Congress so dysfunctional you expect to see a young Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton staring icily across the House chamber at each other every time you turn on C-Span.
This is to say nothing of the historically dangerous candidate she has to beat to reach the White House in the first place. It isn’t enough for Hillary Clinton to face a tough Republican opponent. No, she has to face an unstable man who would undo decades of the established international liberal order with no more thought than he might give to ordering a taco bowl from the grill in his own building. To say nothing of the damage he would do to race relations in America, to domestic policies. You name it, Donald Trump is likely to destroy it.
Just for beating Trump, this country will owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. And she’ll have to do it while carrying the highest unfavorable ratings of any presidential candidate in history, the result of both her own missteps and 25 years of often unhinged attacks on her actions, her character, her very existence.
All presidents enter office with the weight of a nation’s expectations on their shoulders. For Clinton, she will have the normal expectations, plus being a trailblazer as the first female POTUS, plus the knowledge she’s following an extremely popular president and building on his legacy (and who will still be living nearby), plus the expectations of a movement headed by a man who has dogged her for over a year while, if some of the reports coming out of the convention are correct, poisoning or at least exacerbating the already-negative views of her on the left.
And to top it off, she’ll go back upstairs to the White House residence every night, where yet another popular, former two-term president with his own giant shadow will be waiting for her.
Backwards and in heels, backwards and in heels.