CHICAGO — Hillary Clinton's speech here last week to the Food Marketing Institute and the United Fresh Produce Association showed that she could draw the same complaint in 2016 that she did when she lost to Barack Obama in 2008: that she is uninspiring.
Clinton has, of course, not announced whether she will run in 2016, and her speech was not a campaign event. It was a paid speech, and the timing dovetailed perfectly with the national release of her book, Hard Choices, about her years as secretary of State. Hundreds of copies of the book — autographed simply "Hillary" — were offered for sale before and after the June 10 event.
Clinton has said that whether she runs will depend on whether she has a vision for the country, but there wasn't much vision in this speech. Instead, Clinton did a good job of recalling her recent experiences and connecting with her audience by praising the food industry.
Clinton started off by saying she was "thrilled to talk to two groups that every day help families get access to healthy foods" and that she wanted to talk about "hard choices" in food and leadership in the country.
Clinton praised United Fresh for its program to provide salad bars in schools and noted that "there is a debate in Congress" about whether to stick with the healthier meals rules imposed on schools under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. She did not specifically endorse sticking with the new rules, but said "the idea it is too expensive to provide healthy foods" is a "false choice."
She also noted that the Clinton Foundation cofounded the Alliance for a Healthier Generation with the American Heart Association. The alliance, she said, has convinced food and beverage companies to reduce calories in their products. The foundation, she said, has a partnership with McDonald's, "and we need more of those."
Shifting to her role as secretary of State, Clinton said one her hardest choices occurred when her staff informed her that a blind Chinese dissident was requesting asylum but that granting the asylum would upset the Chinese government. Clinton said she told the embassy staff in China to "pick him up" because that's what Americans do.
Clinton also said that it had been a hard choice to decide to become president Obama's secretary of State, because their presidential primary contest had been tough and she enjoyed being the senator from New York. She particularly liked being an advocate for New York farmers, she noted, and she pointed out that she had started "Farm to Fork," a reception on Capitol Hill that gave New York food producers a showcase in Washington.
Clinton also noted that she enjoyed telling people in "new democracies," where political groups might imprison or kill their defeated opponents, that American politicians "have really tough debates" but then work together.
But she also said her State Department experience showed her the importance of American politicians working together. Foreigners were "bewildered" by the July 2011 debate over whether to pay the debt but were "contemptuous" about last fall's government shutdown.
"Our leadership is not a birthright," she said. "We have to earn it. It requires us to work together."
Clinton made her strongest position statement on immigration reform, which won her a big round of applause — not surprising from an industry with millions of immigrant workers, many of them undocumented.
Clinton pronounced herself "somewhat bewildered" by the immigration debate. "Everybody knows we have to have immigration reform — either because they represent agriculture or they represent high tech or people who have lived here for a very long time," she said.
Clinton also noted that farmers in states that have passed laws making it difficult for immigrants to work and live there have come to her for assistance, but she has had to tell them they need to convince the politicians in their own states that immigrant labor is needed.
Returning to international affairs, Clinton said she started the Feed the Future program to shift U.S. food-aid programs toward agricultural development in Africa and other places facing food shortages. Clinton did not mention U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah, whose agency has been in charge of that program. The Clinton Foundation, she added, has started a program of "anchor farms" to teach farmers in low-income countries how to cope with climate change.
Summing up, Clinton said, "Everything I have seen has convinced me that the 21st century can be America's century just as the 20th was. But it is up to more than government. It has to be everyone. "
Clinton got a standing ovation, but after the speech, informal conversations with some attendees showed they had expected more.
One man who is a fruit and vegetable executive said Clinton's speech was "vanilla." Another said it "is clear she is going to run" but that he had hoped for "more substance."
Women attendees were more favorable. One woman praised Clinton for "taking a decidedly optimistic stance. She was not there to make news."
If Clinton were just any celebrity speaker, her Chicago speech and other paid speeches she has scheduled would not be newsworthy. But she is a likely presidential candidate, and most of her speeches — for which she reportedly receives a fee of $200,000 — are open to coverage.
Clinton's speech was a reminder of the night during the Iowa caucuses in 2008 when Obama won and she lost. Clinton, surrounded by her longtime aides, told a small band of supporters and press that she was still the experienced candidate, while Obama gave an inspiring presidential message to the hundreds of young people who had come to campaign for him.
Much has been made of the notion that Obama was a leftist compared with Clinton, but on many occasions he was a more inspiring speaker than she was.
Clinton's keynote speech at the joint FMI-United Fresh event in Chicago was sponsored by Wonderful Brands, the makers of POM pomegranate juice, Fiji water, and other products, although a POM official noted that the company had sponsored the event and not paid her directly. After her formal remarks — delivered in the modern way by walking around the stage, but with surprisingly few punchlines — Clinton fielded some questions from Wonderful Brands CEO Stewart Resnick.
Under questioning from Resnick, Clinton said that she had been "waiting to be a grandmother for a long time."
"Children keep our imagination fresh," Clinton said.
It looks like Clinton is going to need imagination and inspiration if she going to find a fresh and exciting vision for the country. Otherwise another candidate — Democrat or Republican — might give her a surprise like Obama did in 2008.