High-profile New York event highlights Clinton's 'elite' image

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attend the opening ceremony for the National September 11 Memorial Museum, May 15, 2014 in New York City.
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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attend the opening ceremony for the National September 11 Memorial Museum, May 15, 2014 in New York City.

When Hillary Clinton rubs shoulders with financial executives and philanthropic giants at the Clinton Global Initiative's meeting this week, it will underscore the tension between her elite connections and populist image likely to feature in her expected 2016 presidential campaign.

Seen by liberal critics as a close ally of the global elite, she will have to appeal to middle class voters after facing criticism this summer that she is out of touch.

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Clinton drew the ire of progressives and Republicans alike in June by saying she was "dead broke" after leaving the White House as first lady in 2001. And to her populist critics, nowhere is the tension between her status as an emblem of the elite and the need to connect to voters more apparent than in New York, where this week's meeting takes place.

It is a city where she appears with high-profile billionaires, but also a city led by progressive hero Mayor Bill de Blasio, her one-time campaign manager.

"If you look at her track record from the past, it is out of step with the current Democratic Party. Not on social issues, but definitely on economic issues, so we're going to be watching very carefully," said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of liberal group Democracy For America.

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"There's no question the de Blasio wing of the party is ascendant," Chamberlain added, calling Clinton a leader of Democrats' "Wall Street wing" and saying her appearances with financiers are concerning.

Clinton represented New York as a U.S. senator, and both her 2016 campaign and that year's Democratic convention could be based here.

This week's annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative boasts celebrities like actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon alongside business titans like Alibaba's Jack Ma and Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein. President Barack Obama will speak on Tuesday, at a hotel where early on Monday screens occasionally flashed thanks to sponsor Blackstone, the private equity giant.

Hillary Clinton's appearances with financial executives worry progressives who favor stringent bank regulations. But Clinton allies swat away such criticism by noting this week's event is based on philanthropy, and point to the foundation's work.

The initiative, part of the broader Clinton Foundation, brings together leaders to pledge to work on important global problems. Former President Bill Clinton created the foundation although now Hillary and daughter Chelsea also help lead it.

"CGI has helped improve the lives of over 430 million people in more than 180 countries and has worked to secure $103 billion to spur innovative solutions to make the world a better place," said Adrienne Elrod of pro-Clinton group Correct The Record.

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Liberal groups wary

But liberal groups say they are keeping a wary eye on the summit.

"As business and political leaders converge in New York this weekend, the political atmosphere is set. An economic populist tide is sweeping the country," said Laura Friedenbach of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which heavily supports Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

But Clinton's recent speeches have hit a noticeably populist note, and she appeared with labor leaders in New York soon after returning to politically influential Iowa in mid-September.

And supporters of the former secretary of state point to preliminary polls that show Clinton with a considerable lead over potential liberal challengers in the Democratic primary field, including Warren.

A September CNN/ORC poll of Iowa Democrats showed Clinton with a 39 percent lead over Vice President Joe Biden, her closest competitor.

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Peter Buttenwieser, a long-time Democratic donor, philanthropist, and Clinton supporter whose mother's family founded Lehman Brothers, said fears of a liberal backlash against Clinton were overblown.

"Most progressive candidates, including many who are running for the Senate this time, meet with business people, and there's nothing wrong with the vast majority of people who run good, successful businesses," he said.