It wasn’t until this fall that Hillary Clinton began to show her hand. Her book tour was winding down, the midterm elections were gearing up, and her paid speaking events, for which she charged up to $300,000 a pop, had passed from initial curiosity into the realm of postmodern performance art–spectacles, like Andy Warhol prints, remarked on mainly for their cost.

But as she embarked on the campaign trail for Democratic candidates, speaking gratis to voters, she dropped the milquetoast observations about American foreign policy and focused instead on a single, overarching message: the economic frustration of the American middle class.

“Working people haven’t gotten a raise in a decade, and it feels harder and harder to get ahead,” she said in Pennsylvania, in what had become a typical stump speech. From California to Massachusetts, she told voters to choose politicians who were “on your side,” to demand a “fair shot” and a “fresh start,” to make their vote about “upward mobility.” By the time she got to New York, she was practically preaching. “If you work hard and do your part, you and your family are supposed to be able to have a better life,” she roared.

If that rhetoric sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Barack Obama made “on your side” and “fair shot” the two dominant clichés of the 2012 election. They, in turn, owed a lot to Clinton’s husband, the 42nd President, who made the “working hard and playing by the rules” trope a huge crowd pleaser in the 1990s. Indeed, the most remarkable part of Clinton’s new message was that it wasn’t new at all. The most talked-about presidential candidate who is not yet a candidate had simply seized at last upon the issue that has dominated every election in the past generation–and campaign professionals across the country took note.

It is, after all, good politics. Despite the recent growth of the economy, the drop in oil prices and some qualified optimism about wages, the vast majority of Americans have yet to feel so much as a gentle breeze of economic recovery. The median American income this year was about 6% lower than it was in 2000, if adjusted for inflation, and two-thirds of Americans are now living on paychecks that are 15% to 35% smaller than they were in 2002, according to Robert Shapiro, a former economic adviser to President Bill Clinton and co-founder of Sonecon, an economic advisory and analysis firm. “Most people are getting poorer every year,” says Shapiro. “There’s nothing like this on record. It explains our current politics in a way that no other data explain it.”

But if delivering a couple dozen speeches about the broken economy isn’t political rocket science, figuring out a way to convince voters that you’re the one to fix it just might be. Clinton, who is expected to announce her candidacy in early 2015, has her work cut out for her. If she’s going to run on a message of economic prosperity for the middle class, she will need a persuasive policy agenda and a rock-solid political strategy to convince voters that she is, or could be, the new hero of the middle class.

American voters have been promised the moon before, and 2016 will be no different. In the next few months, all the Republican presidential hopefuls will present their lists of policy fixes, including old standbys like more domestic energy, less regulation and lower taxes. Obama, for his part, will continue to push his agenda, including a higher minimum wage and an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax refund designed to reward working families.

Clinton, who will want to differentiate herself from Obama, will probably lift a handful of policies from the tried-and-true Democratic handbook, like funding more infrastructure projects, while loudly championing a few particularly innovative ideas of her own. William Galston, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former domestic-policy adviser to Clinton’s husband, suggests, for example, creating an online public university–the National Online University, he calls it–where anyone could get a degree, in their own time, for free. Others propose federally backed computer-manufacturing apprenticeships, free IT classes and streamlined regulations to make it easier to start small businesses. But while some voters are moved by policy ideas, Clinton’s success in both the primaries and a general election will hinge on whether she is able to give a good sermon about something more important: hope.

Cue hometown boy Bill Clinton. In mid-November, he offered a 2016 campaign preview of his own in a speech at his presidential library in Little Rock, Ark. “When I took office, the distribution of American prosperity looked astonishingly like it does now,” he told a group of supporters. But by the end of the decade, “we had three surpluses and the fourth surplus we submitted to Congress when I left.” The Clinton Administration, he said, created 50% more jobs than Reagan’s, moved 100 times as many people up from poverty and increased the incomes of the bottom 20% of Americans by 23.6%. “This shows the importance of policy,” he said. Then he added pointedly, “We can do this again.” The subtext was clear to everyone present: all we need to return to past glory is a bit of that Clinton touch.

That is, of course, a story line that rankles Clinton’s rivals, both on the Republican side and among the contingent of liberal Democrats who would prefer to see a populist candidate like Elizabeth Warren snag the nomination. Both groups take issue with the narrative. The boom in the ’90s, they believe, was not the result of presidential policy so much as good timing: the birth of the commercial Internet drove productivity and wages higher at a time when the U.S.’s slowly declining manufacturing sector had yet to hit rock bottom. But from there, the two sides’ strategies diverge.

Republicans point out that voters’ memories of the Clinton Administration are hardly all roses. “It’s amusing that the Clinton allies rely heavily on spinning any positives they can from the 1990s while avoiding the baggage that her campaign will carry from their past scandals,” said Tim Miller, who runs the conservative PAC America Rising.

Liberal Democrats are already busy discrediting the idea that Clinton, who is more closely associated with Wall Street than factory floors, should be cast as a warrior for the little guy at all. They point out that in their quarter-century in the public spotlight, the Clintons have raised more than a billion dollars from corporations and business elites, and that nearly all the biggest financial firms have already, albeit tacitly, pledged Clinton their support. Forty-four percent of all voters in Iowa thought Clinton’s “close ties to Wall Street” were a disadvantage, according to an October poll.

Clinton and her close circle are not oblivious to the problem. Aides patiently explain that Clinton donates her famously large speaking fees to her family’s foundation and that the differences between her views and those of the populist wing of the party “are more rhetorical than actual.” But the debate foreshadows the fight to come–when Clinton hopes to reclaim the spirit of the struggling middle class and that same group of voters goes shopping for a candidate who can actually make a difference.

Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com.

This appears in the December 29, 2014 issue of TIME.

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