Bill and Hillary Clinton pointed to ways to bolster the economy and achieve broad-based prosperity, responding to weeks of criticism over their wealth ahead of a potential 2016 presidential bid by the former secretary of state.
The Clintons joined forces at an annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative America on Tuesday to talk about approaches to reduce the gap between the rich and poor — a potent issue within the Democratic party — and harness corporate and non-profit know-how to hire and mentor struggling young workers.
The former president, in an on-stage interview with NBC News, defended the former first lady's commitment to the poor and working Americans, saying his family's post-presidential wealth had not diminished Mrs. Clinton's understanding of the economic plight of many U.S. families.
"She's not out of touch," Mr. Clinton declared, noting that in law school his future wife sought legal assistance for the poor and later advocated for paid leave for new mothers during the 1970s.
The former first lady, who is considering another White House campaign, told ABC News earlier this month that her family was saddled with legal bills and "dead broke" when they left the White House in early 2001. Republicans have seized on the remarks and her comments in other interviews, pointing to the millions of dollars the family has earned since the end of Clinton's presidency.
More than two years before the next presidential election, GOP officials have sought to undermine Hillary Clinton's standing with working-class families who have been supportive of the family's political campaigns in the past. If she runs for president, Republicans say Mrs. Clinton could be vulnerable to charges of being a Washington insider insulated by private jets and six-figure speaking fees at a time when many Americans struggle.
The tactic could represent a payback of sorts after Democrats portrayed Republican Mitt Romney as a plutocrat during the 2012 presidential campaign.
During the interview, the ex-president told NBC's David Gregory that his family's personal wealth was the "wrong debate" and the focus should be on how political leaders address "the central challenge of our time which is the demise of the American dream."
With the gap between the rich and poor on the minds of many Americans, Bill Clinton said most Americans do not resent someone doing well financially. "I think they resent it if they're not getting a fair deal," he said.
He also said the couple visits their local grocery store on weekends like anyone else. "We talk to people in our town. We know what's going on."
Hillary Clinton did not address the debate over the family's wealth at the meeting but announced projects to create job opportunities for young people. The initiatives by companies like The Gap, JPMorgan Chase and Marriott to train and hire young people.
The project, called "Job One," aimed to help young people age 16-24 who are out of school and unemployed. Students preparing for the workforce in the aftermath of the recession have faced persistently high unemployment levels at rates about twice the national average.
"For those who don't get a college education or even high school, most doors just won't open, no matter how hard they knock," the former first lady said. A longtime child advocate, Clinton also announced projects aimed at promoting brain development and literacy for babies and toddlers.
The event took on the air of a Clinton alumni association, with several former members of Clinton's White House team in attendance, including former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and former Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling. An afternoon news conference put Mr. Clinton alongside longtime labor allies such as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union.
Yet even in a roomful of Clinton admirers, the debate got spirited at times. During a panel discussion on economic justice, Mr. Clinton and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — an ex-adviser to Romney — tangled over the merits of raising the minimum wage and the role of government in the economy.
When Fiorina suggested the Obama administration was crushing the coal industry in West Virginia, Clinton interjected. "Who had the smallest government workforce since Eisenhower? Me." Fiorina responded, "That's right. You declared the era of big government over."
"Yeah, but I didn't declare the era of weak government that had nobody at home at the SEC before the financial crisis," Clinton said to roars of approval, referencing complaints that the Securities and Exchange Commission failed to effectively police Wall Street.