When Hillary Clinton announced for president in 2007, she emphasized not her climb to wealth but her humble roots.
"I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America," she said.
That her father was a prosperous fabric store owner did not necessarily mean her family was not middle class. Though the Census Bureau maintains a rather exacting definition for poverty — there are 48 "thresholds" to cross — there is no official definition for "middle class."
When Clinton was growing up in a picturesque suburb northwest of Chicago, to be middle-class meant having your own home, a car or two in the carport, taking a family vacation every year, sending your kids to college, and having some retirement savings.
Most of all, being in the middle class meant security. The socio-economic ladder led only upward. And you were secure in the belief that your children would have a better life than you.
If you believe such things today, however, you are an optimist. Or plastered.
Today the middle class is distraught, apprehensive and shrinking. And poorer. In 1989, the median household income in America was $51,681 measured in today's dollars. In 2012, the median household income was $51,017.
That's right; after 23 years of toil, the middle class managed to get poorer. And imperiled.
A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce put it in simple terms: "It is more difficult now than in the past for many people to achieve middle class status because prices for certain key goods — health care, college and housing — have gone up faster than income."
But one thing the middle class does have going for it currently is sheer size. "The middle class is made up of 60 to 70 percent of Americans," Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, told me Monday. "The bottom 15 to 20 percent are poor. And all of the top 10 percent may not regard themselves as wealthy, but they are on the other side of the great divide."
Where you live also determines whether you have crested the divide. "In San Francisco and Manhattan, you can feel quite poor on $100,000 a year," Reich added.
Reich said we are now living amid an economic recovery, but "this is the first recovery in history in which median household income has dropped."
So where is the wealth going? To those who are already wealthy. "Almost all of our economic gains have gone to the top 1 percent," Reich said. "My fear is that Democrats won't talk about this any more than they did in midterms, in which they wooed wealthy individuals, big corporations and Wall Street, which is the fundamental problem."
Reich is currently a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and he also chairs the governing board of Common Cause, a liberal advocacy group. He believes that a presidential candidate who can "pull the poor and middle class together and make them both winners" can also win the White House.
He is not overly optimistic this will happen, however. Both Democrats and Republicans, he said, go "hat in hand" to wealthy corporations and individuals to raise money to either launch attack ads or defend themselves against attack ads.
And as the old adage goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. It is hard to attack a system that favors the superrich if the superrich are funding your campaign.
"That is the dynamic we face," Reich said, "and it will be interesting to see what hopefuls for 2016 will resist this temptation to hamstring themselves."
Resisting temptation is not exactly what presidential hopefuls do best, though the anger and fear among middle-class voters are things they could successfully exploit.
As that 2010 Commerce Department study concluded, "even those families that can afford a middle class lifestyle must make regular sacrifices and may be one unexpected event away from disaster."
Which is why — speaking three weeks ago in Rochester, Michigan — Hillary Clinton said: "Michigan is where the American middle class was born, and this is where it can thrive again!"
I asked Reich what kind of presidential candidate he is looking for in 2016.
"In general terms, we need candidates who clearly and truthfully assess what has happened to the middle class and the poor," he said. "Unless more of the gains are shared, the economy will not work. It will become so top-heavy that it can't sustain itself, because there will not be enough purchasing power in the middle class and among the poor. We need candidates to be bold and specific as to what needs to be done."
And how about passion? I asked because so many candidates currently appear to lack it.
"Heartfelt passion is needed," Reich said. "The public has an acute ability to smell fakery or lack of authenticity."
Which would eliminate any number of potential candidates.
"Fifty years ago, 29 percent of voters felt the country was run by big interests," Reich said. "Today 79 percent do. The game is rigged against the middle class and poor. But I am not so cynical that I feel it can't be unrigged."
So all we need is a presidential candidate who is bold, truthful, specific, passionate and sincere.