CHICAGO — Hillary Rodham Clinton, making her first major public appearance since stepping down as secretary of state, embraced key pillars of President Obama’s domestic agenda here Thursday and said she would strive to act as an envoy between businesses, nonprofit groups and the government.
Speaking at a charitable conference convened by her husband, the potential 2016 presidential candidate announced that she had joined her family’s foundation and said she would spend the coming months championing early-
childhood development, economic development and opportunities for women and girls.
The speech, centered on educational and economic empowerment, echoed many of the Obama administration’s top priorities and suggested some of the possible themes that Clinton could use in a presidential campaign, should she decide to run.
“This can’t just be a conversation about Washington; we all need to do our part,” Clinton said at the meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative America. “We have to prove again to ourselves, as well as to the rest of the world, that our public and private sectors can work together to find common ground for the common good.”
Clinton voiced praise for many of the issues high on Obama’s agenda, including expansion of pre-kindergarten programs and equal pay for women. The remarks signaled that she intends to remain aligned with her former boss and rival from the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries.
But Clinton also struck a gloomy note on some economic issues, seemingly at odds with the preferred White House message. She decried high unemployment among young people, the decaying state of cities, and pockets of economic and educational inequality in areas such as rural West Virginia.
“In too many places in our own country, community institutions are crumbling, social and public-health indicators are cratering, and jobs are coming apart,” Clinton said.
Clinton also spoke of “overcoming the lines that divide us — whether it’s partisan, cultural, geographic.” She said one of the lessons she learned traveling the world is that, regardless of where she went, “what people wanted was a good job.”
Although Clinton made no direct reference to her political future, one comment she made drew knowing applause from several hundred conference attendees. Calling opportunities for women and girls “the great unfinished business of this century,” Clinton said, “When women participate in politics, the effects ripple out across society.”
The issues Clinton said she would work on are hardly new to her agenda; she has focused on childhood development, girls’ and women’s empowerment and economic development throughout her time in public life, beginning as first lady of Arkansas.
“It’s been her life’s work,” said Jill Alper, a longtime Democratic strategist. “These have always been core concerns.”
Yet by dedicating the next period in her life to the issues, Clinton is suggesting that she sees unfinished business from the presidencies of her husband and Obama.
Steve Elmendorf, another Democratic strategist, said Clinton is smart to focus her energies on those issues rather than rejoining Washington political debates.
“Her great strength when she was first lady, senator and secretary of state is that she’s viewed as a real policy leader,” Elmendorf said. “Whatever she does next — and if she wants to preserve the option of running for president — she’s got to spend these couple of years not being political but talking about issues and substance that matter to the American people.”
Clinton opened a busy day at the CGI America conference, a domestic offshoot of Bill Clinton’s global charitable gathering every September in New York. The Chicago meeting will conclude Friday afternoon with an hour-long “conversation on leadership” between the 42nd president and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a potential opponent of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The Clinton Foundation has been renamed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, signifying the growing role of Hillary Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, in the philanthropic organization founded a decade ago.
“This is truly a labor of love for our entire family,” Hillary Clinton said. “We are so excited and thrilled to have this be a full partnership among the three of us.”
Her speech punctuated a coming-out week of sorts for Clinton, who largely had stayed out of the public eye since leaving as head of the State Department in February.
On Monday, Clinton debuted on Twitter to much fanfare. She has been working on a book chronicling her tenure at State, as well as delivering paid speeches to business groups, many of which are closed to the news media.
She also said Thursday that she is working to recover from four busy years as secretary of state.
“After visiting 112 nations over four years,” she quipped, “I’m still jet-lagged.”
The gala, here in the city where Clinton was born and which Obama calls home, served to symbolize the warming relations between the once-hostile Clinton and Obama camps. Clinton was scheduled to be honored Thursday night at a benefit gala for CURE, the epilepsy charity run by David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief political strategist, and his wife, Susan.
In her 26-minute speech, Clinton said she would work from outside the administration to help expand pre-kindergarten programs and family medical leave benefits, as well as make equal pay for women a reality. She also aims to encourage more girls to pursue careers in such male-dominated fields as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Women are the world’s most underused resource,” Clinton said.