Hillary Clinton’s Speech to Food Industry Lacks Fresh Vision for Future

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13: American University Law student Savannah Black reads former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's new book, 'Hard Choices: A Memoir,' before Clinton takes the stage at the Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University June 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. Similar to a campaign for public office, Clinton is on a nationwide tour to promote the new memoir with media interviews and book signings but has said she would not decide whether to run in the 2016 presidential race before the end of the year. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
June 15, 2014, 3:56 p.m.

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.

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