Hillary Clinton is trapped in a bubble.
She’s been guarded by the Secret Service since 1993. She hasn’t driven a car since 1996. When she shakes hands with voters _ as she did Sunday in Iowa _ she’s often separated from them by metal barriers.
In some ways, Clinton is a prisoner of her own success. The Secret Service protection has been there since she became first lady in 1993, and it will follow her the rest of her life. In other ways, she has fed the sense that she is removed from the lives of everyday Americans, such as when she complained this year that she was “dead broke” when she left the White House.
One scene Sunday illustrated her challenge as she went to Iowa, her first trek there since losing the state’s presidential caucuses in 2008 to Barack Obama and an unofficial kickoff of her attempt to win it this time, as well as the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
She and her husband attended the annual steak fry hosted by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, a chance to meet and mingle with many of the roughly 6,000 Iowa Democrats who attended.
After arriving in a motorcade, she was driven to the site of a gas grill to cook steaks as hundreds of media people watched. The site was so far from the crowd that it was impossible to see her. She did not walk down the grass hill and shake hands with the throng below. She did not sit in the tents and eat with the people who paid $30 for their meals.
Such rituals are commonplace in the nation’s traditional first caucus state. White House hopefuls are expected to go to the state fair and eat fried Twinkies, play catch at the Field of Dreams and blend seamlessly into the steak fry crowd.
Clinton, though, was next visible at the podium, waiting to speak. She did make an effort to relate. In her brief speech she joked about her presidential ambitions, spoke excitedly about her first grandchild and offered passionate advocacy for women’s struggles. She recalled her middle-class roots and talked about her mother’s difficult childhood.
When she did work the fence line later for about 20 minutes, supporters were ecstatic. James Livesey, a human resources manager, asked her if she remembered him from her book tour, and she nodded yes. Linda Johnson, a nurse, got a selfie.
But her husband provided a reminder why Hillary Clinton has some work to do. Bill Clinton was about five steps behind, as Bonnie Brown, an Ankeny security officer, introduced him to her 4-year-old son Preston.
Clinton picked up the child, who promptly lost his shoe. The former president held Preston and talked about the child and his shoe. Cameras snapped. Everyone laughed.
If only Hillary Clinton could show that same ease, people said, she would help dispel the notion she’s out of touch. Iowa voters will watch for such moments. They expect candidates to call, court and feed them over the next 16 months, and most will not make up their minds until the end.
Clinton will never entirely escape the bubble. She’s spent the last two decades there, eight as first lady, eight as a U.S. senator and four as secretary of state. By law, former presidents and first ladies are provided Secret Service protection for life.
Since leaving government, her schedule has been consumed with speeches and fundraisers, and security remains tight. Her dealings with the public have been largely sitting in bookstores autographing her State Department memoir, “Hard Choices,” for admirers.
Clinton’s bigger challenge is her performance outside the comfort zone.
Perhaps most damaging, she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in June, “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt.” Clinton reportedly gets $200,000 per speech. Two months later, Clinton, now a multimillionaire, said she regretted the remark.
To skeptics, such comments reinforce their concerns about Clinton.
“Hillary is part of the political machine, and we need somebody to break through,” said Brenda Brink, a dietician from Huxley.
The same attitude drives Maggie Rawland, a Des Moines teacher, to prefer Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, and his decidedly populist views. Sanders was in Iowa this weekend and is considering a longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Some say she’s the candidate of Wall Street. I know Sanders is not,” Rawland said.
Mary Krier, an Ollie insurance agent, agreed, though she had a different take on Clinton. “We have to be realistic, and we need a woman in office,” Krier said. Sanders may feel voters’ pain, but Clinton has a better chance to win, she figured.