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Hillary Clinton and the experience trap

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
April 8, 2013 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years:
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Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Hillary Clinton could be an excellent presidential candidate in 2016
  • Zelizer: But Clinton has to be careful, as her experience can turned into a liability by rivals
  • He says Clinton needs to sell her skills as well as keep her candidacy exciting and fresh
  • Zelizer: The former first lady has an impressive story to tell but can't let others define her

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Hillary Clinton could be an excellent presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2016. After suffering through an extremely difficult loss in the primaries against Barack Obama, Clinton has managed to strengthen her resume.

As secretary of state, she improved her standing on foreign policy and earned more respect among Democrats who had been skeptical of her positions ever since her vote on the resolution to authorize force in Iraq in 2002.

The press has been showering praise on Clinton in recent months. Even though the next presidential election is more than three years away, there have been numerous stories about how Clinton can dominate the nomination process. Polls show that she comes out ahead of most Democrats as well as prominent Republicans, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

One poll conducted by the Washington Post found that 67% of Americans have a favorable view of Clinton. The Ready for Hillary super PAC has already launched its website.

"We are going to keep up the energy and excitement surrounding her potential candidacy," said the PAC's chairwoman, Allida Black. There have even been articles about why she is not the inevitable candidate, the kind of discussion that only tends to fuel the perception that she is at the top of the heap.

Bill Clinton hints at run for Hillary

But Clinton needs to be careful. In 2008, Barack Obama turned Clinton's experience as first lady and senator into a liability. Back then, Clinton was also seen as the experienced candidate who would inevitably win the nomination.

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When Clinton won the New Hampshire primary after a stunning loss in Iowa, many reporters credited her experience. Clinton did not back away from this image. "I put forth my lifetime of experience," she said. "Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002."

Sensing the mood of the Democratic electorate, Obama capitalized on the fact that he was not a Washington insider. He aggressively attacked Clinton by depicting her as the quintessential politician who was shaped by the Beltway, someone who voters could not trust to keep her word, and a Democrat who would certainly disappoint loyal members of the party by sticking to the status quo.

While Clinton's supporters boasted that no other candidate matched her skills, with each Obama victory, the press became more excited about the unexpected turn in the contest.

Hillary Clinton mania sweeps media
Baer: Natural fascination with Clintons
Hillary Clinton re-emerges

Obama did what Jimmy Carter did in 1976, when he took on Washington heavyweights such as Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Morris Udall by making experience a bad word. Ronald Reagan did the same to his Republican opponents in 1980, including George H.W. Bush, whose sterling record turned into a huge liability with primary voters.

In an era when voters distrust the government, they can often see value in the person with less experience in the system. And in an era when reporters cover elections like horse races, the underdog is often the most exciting person to write about.

Of course, Clinton was anything but "just" a Washington insider. That image was as much the creation of her opponent's political campaign as her own.

Opinion: Hillary Clinton, a mistake for 2016

Her campaign could easily have depicted her as someone who would be a fresh voice in Washington -- the first female president, a person who had struggled to make the role of the first lady something bigger, a fighter who had taken on the aggressive conservative establishment, even as her husband betrayed her before the public eye.

While in the Senate, Clinton displayed remarkable skills at winning over support among many skeptics, including Republicans who had once fought to impeach her husband. Yes, this is about experience in Washington, but her success was also a considerable asset that few politicians possess.

With all the praise that is being showered on her potential candidacy, it's easy to see Clinton facing the same challenges if she decides to run in 2016. Clinton will have to remember the lessons of 2008.

Clinton certainly deserves all the positive coverage, but she can't let it define her. For if she does decide to declare her candidacy, there might be so little excitement left by the time that it is made that the media will turn their attention to any fresh voice, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is an extremely potent politician.

The narrative that campaigns tell about a candidate plays a huge role in the outcome of a contest.

Clinton has an impressive story to tell. She has championed women's rights for decades. She embodies the drive for female equality by shattering many glass ceilings. She has deep political experiences at home and abroad. More than anyone at the moment, she has the potential to be America's female president.

If she runs, Clinton needs to make sure that her Democratic as well as Republican opponents don't turn her strength into a weakness once again.

Clinton needs to find the right balance between selling her experiences and skills and keeping the excitement that her candidacy could bring to a Democratic ticket. She needs to sell the message that her candidacy is distinct and historic. And if she could bring enthusiastic and idealistic supporters to the ballot box just as Obama was able to do, then she has a chance to truly make history.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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