WASHINGTON — On a recent Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked with her husband onto a stage at the New York Sheraton to a standing ovation that only got louder as she tried to quiet things down.
It was a friendly crowd — the annual meeting of her husband’s foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative — and people may have been eager to hear her speech about using US aid to target investment barriers such as old land tenure laws. But really, they were there to see her.
‘‘She’s just looked so sad and so tired,’’ said Ritu Sharma, a women’s rights activist, referring to Clinton’s appearances after the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
They wanted to defend her, to rave about her, to say how sick they were of people talking about her hair. Mostly, though, people wondered what the woman walking across the stage would choose to do next.
Then she began talking about how effective development can advance global peace — the sort of long, detail-laden speech Clinton has given a thousand times, the kind that says nothing and everything about her future.
Recently, Clinton has reiterated that she will not stay on for President Obama’s second term, unleashing fresh waves of speculation about her plans.
There is hypothesizing that she is merely entering a hibernation period before a 2016 presidential bid. There is talk that she will start her own women’s rights initiative. There is the prospect, too, that this might really be it for one of the most iconic figures in American political history.
Despite lingering questions about Benghazi, Clinton is more beloved than at any point in her long career, commanding soaring approval ratings, a vast fund-raising machine, and supporters who gush more than ever that she should run for president again.
The truth is, though, that no one is sure what Hillary Clinton will do, possibly not even Clinton herself, who has said her plans include sleeping and watching the home-improvement show ‘‘Love It or List It,’’ which she finds calming.
But there is one way to figure out what Clinton may ultimately decide, and that is to examine what she has already done: not the obligatory things such as jetting to the Middle East as she did recently, but those things that as a first lady, US senator, and secretary of state she has chosen to do.
Beyond carrying out the Obama administration’s foreign policy and troubleshooting global crises, Clinton has carved out her own agenda during her four years as secretary of state, making choices that reflect who she is after more than 30 years in public service.
Of these, the most controversial may be her push for ‘‘expeditionary diplomacy,’’ the idea that diplomats should engage more with people beyond embassy walls, which Stevens, the ambassador to Libya, exemplified.
The rest are more obscure. They include promoting a milk cooperative in Malawi and low-pollution cookstoves in China and attending an environmental summit in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. They include decidedly unglamorous events, such as a conference devoted to gender-specific data collection, and thousands of miles traveled to often-overlooked places.
From the start, Clinton has explained her agenda as part of a new ‘‘21st century diplomacy’’ that demands the United States be more attuned to the grass roots of the world and relies on development and civilian power as much as military might.
Some say that Clinton diluted her energy and failed to achieve any signature triumphs. Others argue that through a thousand lesser-known efforts and initiatives, she has achieved a transformative shift toward a more effective American diplomacy.
Of all the things that Clinton’s friends say about her, opinions bend toward two essential facets of her character.
The first is that in the time they have known her Clinton has not really changed except to become more of the person she has always been: a deeply optimistic Methodist who believes government can advance human progress and a hopeless wonk.
The second is that while Clinton is a famously shrewd political operator, she is never more energized or relentless as when she is pursuing a cause that she believes will improve people’s lives.
It is what her detractors have at times interpreted as self-righteousness and a precursor to classic big-government liberalism. It is what her admirers have viewed as the doggedly pragmatic quality that makes Clinton an almost heroic figure.
‘‘This job has just amplified things that have always been there,’’ said Betsy Ebeling, a friend of Clinton’s since their childhood in Chicago, when they read novels about knights in shining armor, heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak, and canvassed Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.
‘‘It’s given her a great stage for the many things she’s always cared about, only now she has the whole world.’’