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Paid Leave Takes a Place on Hillary Clinton’s Platform

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Today, three days into Hillary Clinton's candidacy, her campaign will announce its three senior policy advisers. And the selection of one of them, Ann O’Leary, is sending a strong message that the Clinton campaign wants to make the the right to take time off work to recover from birth, care for a new baby, or tend to a sick relative without losing wages a central plank in its platform. 

O’Leary told me paid leave will be part of a “suite of issues at the forefront of the campaign… a bubbling up of a whole bunch of issues related to how middle class families have both economic stability and opportunities for their children.” At the center of Clinton’s agenda, she said, is the need “to update our employment policies,” and make sure women can “make the income they need to make to support families and caregiving.”  (Equal pay for women is another one of the issues O’Leary will be working to integrate into the Clinton platform, making it fitting that announcement of O’Leary’s role comes on Equal Pay Day, the day, four and half month’s into the new year, when earnings for women catch up to what men earned last year.) 

That said, O'Leary wasn't ready yet to go into many policy specifics. "There is incredible demand that something be done with paid family leave," she told me. "Hillary Clinton is listening to that demand and thinking really hard about how we construct policies to address these concerns. We're still formulating all of this." 

In addition to O'Leary, the other two senior policy advisers are Maya Harris, a former executive director of the ACLU of Northern California, and Jake Sullivan, a veteran of Clinton's 2008 campaign who served as a deputy chief of staff during her years as Secretary of State. According to the campaign, Clinton is expected to begin unveiling specific policy positions over the summer.  

Advocates for paid leave have been giddy for weeks about O’Leary’s impending appointment, believing that her position in the upper echelon means the campaign means business about this issue. “The inclusion of Ann O'Leary on the Hillary Clinton team is a signal,” said Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work Consortium, and perhaps the nation’s most dogged activist for paid leave. “It means work and family issues will get the attention voters are clamoring for in this election.”

You've probably never heard of Ann O'Leary (she doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry) but she’s been in and out of Clintonland for over 20 years—first as a volunteer clipping news articles overnight in Bill Clinton's White House, and then eventually heading up children and family policy on the White House Domestic Policy Council; then as legislative director for Hillary in the Senate; and more recently, affiliated with the Clinton Foundation. And over the course of her career, since she was a College Democrat at Mount Holyoke, the throughline connecting her academic research, political advising, and advocacy, has been what's now often referred to as work-life balance. That’s not what Clinton calls it, however. “[Hillary] is one of the first people who told me it’s not a balancing act,” O’Leary says, but “how we fit the puzzle pieces together.” 

O’Leary has been a vocal advocate for how that puzzle might work, and her appointment is the surest sign yet that Clinton is looking to use the paid leave issue to brand itself from the outset as economically populist. An embrace of paid leave, which did not figure into her 2008 campaign, would be a move that many progressives, feminists, and economic policy wonks have been urging.

If paid leave is a new policy priority for Clinton, it is not a new one for O'Leary. In a 2011 Washington Post discussion, she noted, "The issues of workers being unable to combine their need to work and earn a family income and their need to care for their children and ailing relatives is a real issue that has not been adequately addressed"; testifying in a 2012 Senate hearing called “Beyond Mother’s Day: Helping the Middle Class Balance Work and Family” she said, “The United States has built its economy and its social policies around the assumption that when a child needs care or a family member is ill someone in the family is able and available to be away from work to provide that care. This assumption has long been faulty.” 

While Clinton has made soaring calls for economic equality for women in the past, perhaps most memorably in her landmark Beijing address twenty years ago — “If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish” — she has not taken a prominent stand for the policies states and cities have considered for over a decade now, not to mention the federal bill which first made the rounds last year. About a week before President Obama made leave a focus of last year's White House Summit on Working Families, Clinton was pessimistic when asked about the feasibility of leave on a national scale.  “I think, eventually, it should be,” she said. “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.” Hiring someone like O'Leary, who spent three years of her life developing a "Family Security Insurance" plan of reform, for this senior role suggests that Clinton has seen marked improvement in the viability of paid leave.

Still, says Morgan Stanley executive Tom Nides, who was Clinton’s deputy at the State Department when she was Secretary of State, “[Clinton] didn't just wake up and decide she’d care [family leave] because she’s running for president.” This is something that “will be a big part of her overall agenda,” Nides added, and it has been important to her for a long time. “She’s been out front on this for 20, 30, 40 years.”

Ir's hard to agree, though, that she's been out in front. It's not as if she had authored a federal bill from her formidable desk in the Senate, like Kirsten Gillibrand has done since winning election to her old seat. Whether you think culture drives politics or politics drive culture, the Clintons have always driven both. Hillary Clinton has understood the need for paid leave since before FMLA failed to include it; could she really have done no more than shrug through all these decades of influence?

As Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who worked on the Family and Medical Leave Act, which George H. W. Bush vetoed twice before Bill Clinton signed it as his first bill in office, put it: “We couldn't have gotten [paid family leave] twenty-five years ago. The terrain has shifted. This is the moment we can do that. It's a different environment.” Indeed, it’s only gotten harder to earn a living and care for yourself and the people you love. And finally Clinton’s “everyday Americans” are telling pollsters they want change. 

What Clinton has apparently learned in the past year is that the political calculus has changed — in part because of the spadework done by advocates including Bravo and O'Leary, in part because of an expansive cultural conversation about the impossible juggle of work and family without structural support. But outsiders can only do so much; there's no substitute for a presidential candidate pushing an issue, in turn forcing everyone else in the game, candidates and office holders alike, to address it. “The fact that Hillary Clinton is talking about leave has upped the ante, driving the narrative forward, making elected officials feel they need to take a position,” says Debra Ness of the National Partnership for Women and Families. And to people like Ness, who have been working on these issues for even longer than O’Leary, her place at the strategy table is the linchpin. “It’s clear that selecting Ann as a top advisor means that women and working families will be at the center of the candidate’s message and policy platform.”