Back in Iowa, Hillary Goes Big on Small Business

Back in Iowa, Hillary Goes Big on Small Business
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The last time Hillary Clinton was publicly photographed riding a bicycle may have been when she was secretary of state, accompanying her husband along a beach.

The bike motif, without the sand, will serve as a campaign backdrop this week in Iowa, when Clinton focuses on small business owners and their employees, who say in national surveys they need customers, access to capital, and less government red tape.

Clinton, who kicked off her campaign a month ago and then spent three days in Iowa, is returning to hail her team’s grassroots organization in the early caucus state, and to describe her vision for a U.S. economy that relies on small entrepreneurs to create jobs. 

On Monday, she’ll meet grassroots organizers at the home of a supporter in Mason City, Iowa, and on Tuesday she’ll participate in a roundtable discussion with community lenders and business representatives in Cedar Falls. That discussion is to take place at Bike Tech, a bicycle and sports shop that outgrew its location on Main Street this year and moved to larger quarters in a vintage former post office a few streets away.

“I want to be the president for small business,” Clinton declared May 5 while speaking during a similar roundtable at a library in Nevada.

After launching her second bid for the White House in April and committing to victory in Iowa next year, Clinton vowed to return to the state as often as possible. Caucus-goers proved challenging for her in 2008, and for her husband in 1992.

Iowans insist on taking the measure of presidential aspirants up-close, and Clinton is determined to deliver the personal attention that requires shoe leather, hand-shaking, careful listening, and selfies posed with strangers.

Younger voters -- who embraced Barack Obama in 2008 -- are among Clinton’s targets in 2016. The popular bike shop in Cedar Falls where the candidate will appear Tuesday is a setting meant to enlarge her narrative in a number of ways. 

She wants the attention of young voters, progressive voters, small shops and family-run enterprises (which are America’s economic engine, and by the way, are led by many swing voters). She wants her message to come across as “Main Street v. Wall Street” (to blunt critics who say she’s too cozy with big financial institutions and New York’s business elites). And Clinton wants support from female voters (a quarter of Iowa’s businesses are women-owned). 

In 2008, Clinton lost Iowa in part because voters there said they had trouble warming up to her.

“I know what people have been saying,`Well, you know, we’ve got to know more about her, we want to know more about her personally,’” she said before Obama’s victory. “And I totally get that. It’s a little hard for me. It’s not easy for me to talk about myself.”

This time around, Clinton is campaigning as close as she can get to “outside-the-bubble” just-folksiness, reminding her audiences that before she was an attorney, first lady of Arkansas, wife of a president, senator from New York, and secretary of state, she grew up with Midwestern values as the daughter of a small businessman who ran a drapery business. She may be a wealthy international icon at age 67, but Clinton’s message is that she’s never relinquished her middle-class, middle-America sensibilities. 

President Obama visited Cedar Falls in January, turning to the community as a favored setting for a pre-State of the Union message, describing the economic imperatives of universal broadband connectivity (Cedar Falls is an “eCity” leader, according to Google).

During the first week of May to mark Small Business Week, the president described his national agenda for small entrepreneurs, hitting everything from regulations to lending. Clinton is expected to echo those themes as she begins to describe how she would enlarge “the economy of the future,” as she’s pledged to do if elected president.

Obama a few weeks ago said, “I have signed into law 18 different tax cuts for small businesses, which are helping them thrive in the 21st-century economy.”

“By investing in our infrastructure, expanding access to credit, and assisting entrepreneurs as they start out and scale up, we are continuing to bolster America's small business community,” he added.

The president talks about expanding export markets for U.S. small businesses, a topic that in Iowa could encourage Clinton to touch on international trade. 

As Congress debates legislation to grant the president fast-track authority to conclude a trade pact with 11 other nations, Clinton has been conspicuously mute. Trade Promotion Authority, which would permit the legislative branch to approve or disapprove a trade deal but not to amend it, divides Democratic lawmakers and is vigorously opposed by organized labor. But she promoted the merits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as secretary of state.

As the U.S. economy has continued to recover, small business owners say they’re more optimistic about the future. But that outlook dimmed a tad in the first quarter compared with late 2014, even as it remained at the highest level measured since January 2008, according to a quarterly survey reported by the Gallup Organization. Small entrepreneurs are focused on their prospects for revenues, and on the challenges of accessing capital and credit.

Recently, Clinton said the expansion experienced by many small businesses had “stalled out,” an assertion Obama disputed as a blip tied to slower growth in Europe rather than a U.S. trend.

In the Hawkeye State this week, advised by many of the same economic experts who served Presidents Clinton and Obama, Hillary is expected to have her say.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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