Hillary's State of the Union

The Democratic frontrunner’s appearance in New York on Monday was billed as an economic speech, but it was really all about politics.

Mike Segar / Reuters

Introducing Hillary Clinton on Monday morning, New School President David Van Zandt said the university always sought to give a forum to “new ways of thinking.”

Van Zandt might have been dismayed: The economic address Clinton delivered didn’t offer much novelty. Instead, it was a long laundry list of ideas, from family policy to employment law to financial regulation, designed to set herself apart from rivals both right and left and set out a path for her campaign. For nearly an hour, the Democratic presidential favorite checked off boxes and took shots—veiled and not—at other presidential candidates, anchoring her speech by the triple goal of strong growth, fair growth, and long-term growth.

It’s a theme that’s aphoristic but not especially catchy, and clear but vague. Though billed as an economic speech, this was really more about politics. Delivering her speech like a State of the Union—measured, seldom rising to the point of passion—Clinton offered more evidence that she’s running as an incumbent, acting as though she’s already the president, or at the very least already the president-elect. Not with the standard faux-humility of the stump speech; rather than telling the audience what she would do if elected, she told them what she will do when elected. Knowing she’s never been an orator to set the world afire, Clinton has chosen to project a sober seriousness.

The trick for Clinton, especially in trying to run as an incumbent, is to boost President Obama’s economic achievements even as she distances herself from missteps and failures and paints herself as her own candidate. While praising Obama’s handling of the economic crisis (she cracked that Republican policies have twice sent the country into recession and required Democratic presidents to clean up), she said it was now time for the next phase. “While America is standing again, we’re not yet running the way we should,” she said, a line recycled from her announcement speech. “We’re not going to find all the answers we need in the playbooks of the past. We can’t go back to the old policies that failed us before, nor can we just replay the successes. Today is not 1993, it’s not 2009.”

Yet as she acknowledged, many of the policies she put forward are familiar: comprehensive immigration reform; expanded family leave; closing the pay gap for women; raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing overtime pay; a national infrastructure bank and better broadband Internet service. Perhaps the most impassioned moment came when she discussed the importance of fully involving women in the workforce, arguing that so-called women’s issues like family leave and the pay gap are truly issues for the broader economy—a slight variation on her famous “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” speech in Beijing in 1995.

Aides previewed the speech by saying Clinton would use it to draw contrasts with Bernie Sanders, who’s mounting an unexpectedly popular challenge from her left for the Democratic nomination. While she’ll never be a fire-breathing lefty like the Vermont socialist, she kicked off her speech in terms that could almost have been Sanders’s.

“Previous generations built the greatest economy and strongest middle class the world has ever known on the promise of a basic bargain: If you work hard and do your part, you should be able to get ahead,” she said. “Over several decades, that bargain has eroded. Our job is to make it strong again.”

But she seemed content to split the difference on many of the issues themselves. She spoke warmly of the new opportunities the “gig economy”—her term—has created, but also worried about the lack of workplace protections. Later, she vowed to “crack down” on employers who “misclassify” workers as contractors to deprive them of benefits, which could equally be a dig at the real goods economy, like FedEx, or the new-tech economy, like Uber. (Unlike Jeb Bush, who plans to cite Uber as a model, Clinton didn’t mention the ride app by name.)

Clinton has been assailed from the left for her stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free-trade agreement she backed as secretary of state but cooled on as candidate, and which the Democratic left has revolted against. Clinton hedged, saying good trade agreements can boost the world, but bad ones must be rejected. As a consolation prize to the unions that hate the treaty, she spoke at some length about the importance of labor and collective bargaining.

Peppered throughout the speech were swipes at Clinton’s Republican rivals. Chief among these was Jeb Bush (and not, surely to his chagrin, Donald Trump). Bush has (unrealistically) proposed four-percent growth targets, but Clinton countered that economic plans need to be based on real help for American people and businesses, not an “arbitrary growth target, untethered to people’s lives and livelihoods.” During an appearance last week, Bush said Americans need to work more hours—a comment that seems to have been referring to people who want full-time jobs but can’t get them. Democrats, however, have jumped on the comment, trying to paint Bush as a plutocrat who doesn’t understand the travail of the working man. Clinton piled on, scolding Bush: “They don’t need a lecture, they need a raise.”

Elsewhere, she criticized Senator Marco Rubio’s tax plan and criticized Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who entered the race Monday, for trampling on workers’ rights. In perhaps the most opaque comment, she said, “​Let’s get back to making decisions that rely on evidence more than ideology.” It sounds like a vintage Democratic talking point from 2008, aimed at the George W. Bush presidency, though perhaps she was thinking of Sanders as well.

But the Obama administration didn’t go unscathed in the speech. Clinton has long had close ties to Wall Street, and that presents a dilemma for her—she doesn’t want to demonize a key constituency, but has to navigate her party’s leftward shift. Clinton complained that big companies have fallen under the sway of “quarterly capitalism,” focusing on shareholder value in the immediate term, rather than providing growth and innovation and employee investment for years to come. While Clinton said the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill was a start, she said it wasn’t enough, and called for stronger regulation of hedge funds and high-frequency traders. And she endorsed one populist criticism of the Obama White House: that it has not prosecuted lawbreakers in finance aggressively enough—and when it has, it has been content to elicit guilty pleas from firms while letting individuals skate.

“While institutions have paid large fines and in some cases admitted guilt, too often it has seemed that the human beings responsible get off with limited consequences or none at all, even when they’ve already pocketed big gains,” Clinton said. “This is wrong, and on my watch it will change.”

These strong tones stuck out in an otherwise measured speech. Clinton, likely wisely, didn’t try to present herself as a passionate fighter in the mold of Sanders. In fact, she seemed almost determined to be boring. While Clinton promised more detail on many of her ideas in the coming weeks and months, this speech seemed mostly geared at situating herself against her rivals and presenting herself as a steady, wonkish hand on the tiller.