In his speech, Clinton offered up some wide-ranging prescriptions for curing the nation's ailing economy, among them investing in new sectors for job growth -- for example, retrofitting buildings so that they're energy-efficient -- supporting high-end manufacturing in the U.S., lowering the tax rate for businesses so they can reinvest in job creation, and "accelerating the resolution of the mortgage crisis" by helping people who owe more on their homes than they're worth. One way would be to lower the principals on those loans to the value of the homes, he said.
Clinton counted a "highly unstable" global financial crisis and America's serious economic inequality issue -- "that's what Occupy Wall Street is all about: About 90% of the economic gains over the last decade went to the top 10%" -- as being among "the biggest problems with this world."
Change "begins in our minds and hearts," he said.
Still, while times remain tough, the economic picture is showing signs of improvement -- particularly for the retail industry, Clinton said. Last year, retail, which accounts for 25% of the nation's jobs, grew more than 5%, while the U.S. economy grew at about 2%, he noted. (The NRF forecasts retail growth of 3.4% this year.)
"Work Is at the Core of Human Dignity"
The 42nd president himself started his working life in the retail business, he told a packed room at the Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center.
At 13, Clinton convinced a grocery store owner to let him set up a comic book store in his shop. "I made about $100 bucks."
While a career in retail never panned out for the president, as a young man, "I never doubted that I could make a living," he said.
"We've got to get America back in the futures business," he said. In part, that means "reforming our education system to educate people for a lifetime."
The country should also invest in high-end manufacturing to jump-start the economy, he said. Clinton pointed to Corning Glass in upstate New York -- which manufactures worldwide, but also retains production stateside, as its research labs are here -- as a sound business model.
Patronizing local businesses is also important, he said, advocating for a fair tax rate for small business owners.
Clinton said he relishes shopping at small stores during the holiday season. This Christmas, he bought books for his daughter Chelsea and son-in-law at Argosy, a bookshop in Manhattan, he said.
But he was also "morose" about the closure of Borders bookstores, particularly the one in Chappaqua, N.Y., where he lives.
Retail, one big engine of the U.S. economy, "is healthy when there's a strong middle class," he said.