NEW YORK — It was one of the most anticipated events of the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York: a panel on “women decision-makers” headlined by Hillary Clinton.
But 45 minutes into the event Wednesday, the former secretary of state still hadn’t appeared on stage — and reporters who had descended in droves on the meeting to look for clues about her political future were starting to wonder if they had wasted their time.
Clinton finally arrived 10 minutes before the session was set to end. And once there, she offered no guidance on her political plans — announcing instead she would lead an effort to evaluate women’s progress around the world to coincide with the 20th anniversary of a United Nations conference on women’s rights held in Beijing in 1995.
That conference marked a pivotal moment in Clinton’s rise as a recognized champion of women’s rights around the world — a moment when, as first lady, she spoke out more forcefully against the abuse of women and girls in China and elsewhere than other American diplomats had at the time.
“I believe it’s time for a full and clear-eyed look at how far we have come, how far we still have to go and what we plan to do together about the unfinished business of the 21st century, the full and equal participation of women,” Clinton said, before announcing several Clinton Foundation grants aimed at empowering women.
Ten minutes later, Clinton was gone — leaving the media and hundreds of CGI attendees, who have wandered the halls here musing about a possible Clinton 2016 run, with almost no clues on her latest thinking.
But even as Clinton keeps everyone guessing about whether she’ll seek the Democratic nomination three years from now, it's been hard not to view her schedule this week at CGI as an effort to at least lay the groundwork.
President Bill Clinton has repeatedly insisted in interviews this week that he and his wife want to separate the work of their foundation from politics. But almost every aspect of his wife's schedule seems to reflect careful positioning ahead of a White House run.
That includes her focus on women, a safe issue that not only reflects her diplomatic record but also the historic nature of her potential candidacy. Since leaving the State Department in February, Clinton has given several speeches about the empowerment of women and has said that issues related to women and girls will be central to her work with her family’s foundation. Her efforts suggest the subject could be a major theme of a potential candidacy.
It's a change from her ill-fated run for the 2008 Democratic nomination against now-President Barack Obama, where she was criticized by many activists for underplaying the history that would be made if she were elected the first female president.
While Clinton has largely avoided political subjects at CGI, there have been exceptions.
On Tuesday, Clinton introduced her former boss, Obama, who came to CGI to do an interview with Bill Clinton about the roll out of the Affordable Care Act health care law.
Their talk came one week before one of the controversial law’s most important elements — insurance exchanges designed to offer cheaper health care options to the uninsured — is set to go in effect. It was the second time in a month that the Clintons have held an event to promote the law. On Sept. 4, Bill Clinton gave a speech defending Obama’s law on at his presidential library in Arkansas.
The Clintons have cast their advocacy as a push for a law that Bill Clinton on Tuesday called “a big step forward for America.” But it could also reflect the Clintons’ desire to push health care drama off the table ahead of 2016 — especially given Hillary Clinton’s own complicated history on the subject, as the main architect of her husband's failed White House push for a health care law.
Before Obama’s arrival, Hillary Clinton said the ACA was far from a perfect bill but echoed her husband in describing it as “an important step forward.” And she took a shot at Republican opponents of the law, suggesting their threat to shut down the government to prevent implementation of the law would help Democrats.
“We’ve seen that movie before,” she said, referring to a GOP-backed government shutdown in 1995 when her husband was president.
The moment marked Clinton’s only overtly political remark during the two days of CGI meetings so far.
But the topic came up in other ways. As Clinton sat for an interview with CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he referenced the elephant in the room — asking her “how important” it would be for a woman to be president even if she wouldn't comment on her own plans.
Clinton grinned, as the audience — mostly women — broke into applause.
“That is a question that I will answer taking myself totally out of it,” she replied. “It is, for me, a part of a larger mission to expand participation and leadership among women around the world.”
“We have a lot of challenges,” she continued. “Electing one person, a woman, is not going to end those challenges, but it provides the kind of boost to the efforts that so many of us have been making for so long.”
She paused and added, “So I guess the short answer is, I think it would be important. It’s not going to solve all our problems, but I think it would be a very strong statement that would be made to half our population, and half the world’s population.”
The crowd applauded her wildly.