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Hillary Clinton warns that inequality can corrupt societies

Hillary Clinton, May 14, 2014.
Hillary Clinton, May 14, 2014.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

There's an interesting dilemma that Hillary Clinton faces as she positions herself for a potential presidential run. The Democratic Party and its base are overwhelmingly focused on domestic issues — most of all, the economy and income inequality . Yet the main thing Clinton has done since 2008 is serve as Obama's Secretary of State, a foreign policy job. Even her tenure there lacks a marquee, eye-catching achievement — "Hillary Clinton never did find a way to turn Foggy Bottom into her ticket to history," Susan Glasser wrote in Politico Magazine. If US voters simply don't care very much about foreign policy right now, and Clinton has no obvious accomplishment that makes them care, how does she turn her State Department experience into a case for her candidacy?

During a Washington DC speech on Friday, Clinton provided a look at how she might approach this challenge. "Economists have documented how the share of income and wealth going to the very top — not just the top 1%, but the top 0.1% or the 0.01% of the population, has risen sharply over the last generation," she told the New America Foundation. "Some are calling it a throwback to the Gilded Age of the robber barons." But after this tough talk, she made an interesting rhetorical turn toward her Secretary of State experience. The video of her speech is here, these comments start around 14:40:

"As Secretary of State, I saw the way extreme inequality has corrupted other societies, hobbled growth, and left entire generations alienated and unmoored. From Guatemala, to Greece, to Pakistan, I urged elites to pay their fair share — to provide services that would be the base on which more of their fellow countrymen and women could climb out of poverty. I pressed governments to invest in their people an inclusive positive vision of the future. Now, in the Middle East and North Africa, we saw the explosive results when opportunity and potential are denied for too long."

Here, Clinton is positioning herself as a kind of global crusader against income inequality, urging corrupt and wealthy elites to do something about this challenge. And by bringing up the Arab Spring, she alludes to the "explosive results" that could occur if the US doesn't do something to address it. "Many Americans feel frustrated, even angry," she said. Though Clinton never explicitly argues that social upheaval akin to the Arab Spring could happen here, bringing it up in this context clearly underscores the need for urgent action. So rather than arguing that her Secretary tenure makes her qualified to lead on foreign affairs, she's saying it beefs up her qualifications on domestic policy.

It's an interesting reaction to the growing possibility that, if there is a competitive Democratic primary in 2016, inequality issues will be the main battleground. The New Republic's Noam Scheiber wrote that an Elizabeth Warren run could be "Hillary's nightmare." And last week, Vice President Biden — another potential candidate — gave what was described to CNN as "a stem-winding, almost revival-type speech" about inequality issues.