Unlike Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton Lacks A Simple, Clear Economic Message "I don't think Hillary Clinton wants to do anything in one sentence," says former Obama strategist David Axelrod. "That's the problem, right?"
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Unlike Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton Lacks A Simple, Clear Economic Message

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Unlike Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton Lacks A Simple, Clear Economic Message

Unlike Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton Lacks A Simple, Clear Economic Message

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Americans are taking stock of two very different presidential candidates - Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Both of them have long to-do lists. Today, what many Democrats say Hillary Clinton needs to do first is get a clear message on the economy. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Not only does Donald Trump have a simple message. He tells you he has one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Our theme is very simple. It's make America great again. We will make America great again. We will start winning again.

(CHEERING)

LIASSON: Behind that simple message are a host of equally simple sounding plans aimed right at Americans' economic insecurities - build a wall, dump the bad trade deals, deport 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Love those ideas or loath them, it's crystal clear what Trump wants to do. I asked President Obama's former top strategist David Axelrod, what, in one sentence, does Hillary Clinton want to do?

DAVID AXELROD: I don't think Hillary Clinton wants to do anything in one sentence. She wants to do things in paragraphs and pages. Look, this has always been a problem in that she's incredibly fluent in policy. She embraces good policy ideas. But she has a hard time weaving them into a coherent narrative that cuts through.

LIASSON: This isn't the first time Hillary Clinton has run against an opponent with a big, clear message. In 2008, it was hope and change, and this year, it's not just Trump. Bernie Sanders also has big, dramatic plans for change. Break up the banks. Make a political revolution. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake...

CELINDA LAKE: In our business, we call it an origin story. Both of them have a clear rationale for how we got here, who's to blame for it. And out of that, people think, well, then I can assess what they're going to do about it.

LIASSON: Lake says Clinton needs her own origin story. She needs to tell voters why they are struggling.

LAKE: Why are we having trouble competing in the world? Why do we not have manufacturing jobs? Why can't - we're Americans after all. We're supposed to be able to ensure that the next generation has a better chance.

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton has a lot of programs to address these worries - paid family leave, debt-free college, affordable childcare. But she rarely sums them all up. She's been experimenting with one big theme - breaking down barriers. It's a message aimed at women, Hispanics and African-Americans. But, says her campaign chairman John Podesta, she does it in her own policy wonkish (ph) way.

JOHN PODESTA: She's someone who always starts from what you can get done, what is holding people back, what are the barriers that people are facing, whether that's institutional racism or an economy that's rigged for the people at the top. What initiatives could I take that will make a difference in people's lives? That's where she is not only most comfortable, but I think she thinks that's how change happens.

LIASSON: Coming up with a clear economic message of her own isn't just a problem for Hillary Clinton. It's a problem for Democrats in general, who, in Celinda Lake's polls, are consistently behind Republicans on the issue of the economy. In recent general election polls where Clinton beats Trump handily in the horse race, the economy is the only issue where he beats her, and that is the No. 1 issue for voters. Lake says Democrats have never won when they're losing on the economy.

LAKE: We are starting from a deficit in that, so it makes it really, really important to articulate a powerful economic origins story and a plan that seems up to the scale of the problems that we have.

LIASSON: What could be Clinton's big plan? She has a lot of policy papers to choose from. Some Democrats think she could take her idea for an infrastructure bank and scale it up into a major jobs, training and investment program. Infrastructure is something Trump, the big builder, has started talking about, too.

And Clinton has some other challenges. In the fall, she'll be running against an unpredictable populist with positions that are to her left and her right. She also has a gender problem. Trump beats Clinton on the economy not just because he's a businessman - candidates from the business world often get an automatic advantage on creating jobs - but because she's a woman.

Celinda Lake's polling shows that female candidates from both parties are rated behind men on the economy and jobs. Lake thinks that could be because women are too responsible to go for the big, sweeping narrative. Clinton has done a little self-analysis on this problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "OFF MESSAGE")

HILLARY CLINTON: Sometimes I get criticized for, oh, my gosh, there she goes with another plan.

GLENN THRUSH: Right.

LIASSON: That's Clinton on a podcast with Politico's Glenn Thrush.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "OFF MESSAGE")

CLINTON: I hope I'm a better candidate. I feel like I am. I mean, I have said in this campaign, look; I'm not a natural politician.

THRUSH: Right.

CLINTON: I'm not somebody who, like my husband or Barack Obama, just - it's music, right?

LIASSON: Clinton has show she's comfortable with the lyrics - the granular details of policy. The question is, can she write the music, too, and deliver a big, aspirational message. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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