CUPERTINO -- Don't bother asking Bill Clinton if his wife is going to run for president in 2016.
"If I did know, I wouldn't tell you," he said Wednesday evening, fielding the first of many questions from a packed audience at De Anza College's Flint Center during the first of a three-night stand as part of the 45th Annual Celebrity Forum Speakers Series.
But seriously, he said: He doesn't know. It's been a busy 20 years for Hillary Rodham Clinton, he said: eight years as first lady, then a stint as a U.S. senator before a hard-fought 2008 presidential primary campaign -- and then four years as secretary of state under President Barack Obama.
"She's in great shape; she has unbelievable stamina," but she must rest up before choosing her course, he said, noting that he told her before they married that she was "the most gifted person in public service in my generation." And, he said, he still believes it today.
Of the ongoing "fiscal cliff" battle paralyzing Washington, D.C., and transfixing the nation, Clinton advised calm:
"Don't get too disgusted by what you see -- they're doing a little dance now," like sumo wrestlers making their traditional approach. "I'll be very surprised if they don't do a reasonably acceptable deal."
That must include Republicans letting Bush-era tax cuts expire for those earning more than $250,000 per year, he said. The rich have enjoyed all of the past decade's economic growth and a disproportionate benefit from the tax cuts, and the budget can't be balanced only with spending cuts, he said.
Clinton's speech was titled "Embracing Our Common Humanity." It included a discussion of his work through the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative to tackle problems from poverty to climate change with practical solutions. He said he's largely out of politics now, although "every now and then they blow the whistle and I show up."
Americans should consider what they want in the 21st century, which he called "the most interdependent age in human history" in which "the borders of every country in many ways operate more like nets than like walls."
He said the world faces three basic challenges: too much economic inequality; too much economic and political instability and unpredictability; and unsustainable energy production and consumption. Of the latter, he said, the climate change debate now should be about how to address the problem, not whether a problem exists.
"California has been through a very tough time," hit disproportionately by the mortgage and financial crises, he said. But "it will pass -- we will not be killed by this financial crisis."
America's population on average is younger than Europe's and Japan's, he noted, and unless China alters its immigration patterns, the U.S. will soon have an advantage there too. "And having lost it, let me tell you: Youth matters" in finding a path to prosperity, he said.
Clinton earlier Wednesday lunched at Palo Alto's LYFE Kitchen, which emphasizes natural and sustainable ingredients, and met with restaurant executives.
At the De Anza appearance, Clinton answered a wide range of written questions from the audience, at one point reiterating support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that lets Israel remain a majority-Jewish democracy. Had Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated by a right-wing Israeli radical in 1995, the region would've reached a peace deal by 1998, "and you'd be living in a very different world," he said.
Asked for his New Year's resolution, Clinton replied that he's vowed to help his wife "deal with the decompression I know goes with getting off the merry-go-round."
"It's going to be a new chapter in our life,'' he said. "And I'm looking forward to it."