As if shadow-boxing before a title bout, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney appeared before the same audience on Tuesday when they spoke within hours of each other at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. The Republican challenger showed up in the morning to address former President Bill Clinton’s annual conference on world problems, while the Democratic president arrived later that afternoon.
A sharper contrast in style and substance is difficult to imagine.
In fairness, Romney deserved considerable credit for the effort, his presence paying tribute to Clinton’s role as a bipartisan convener, despite the former president’s own strong partisan preferences. Surely Republicans from the corporate world are involved with CGI, and Clinton keeps politics separate from philanthropy — but the overflow audience in the midtown hotel ballroom was emphatically not a right-wing crowd. They politely applauded the GOP nominee, but he offered them little occasion for enthusiasm.
After Clinton thanked Romney graciously for coming to CGI, he replied with a clever quip: “If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good. After that introduction, I guess all I have to do is wait a day or two for the bounce.” Although better written and more crisply delivered than his awful convention speech, it went downhill from there.
Combining the traditional paean to free enterprise with a familiar critique of foreign aid, Romney’s speech might have struck a fresh note at a Rotary Club luncheon circa 1981; to the sophisticated entrepreneurs, executives, activists, and diplomats at CGI, it had to sound canned and even a bit condescending:
“Economic freedom is the only force in history that has consistently lifted people out of poverty…Free enterprise cannot only make us better off financially, it can make us better people…Ours is a compassionate nation… As the most prosperous nation in history, it is our duty to keep the engine of prosperity running—to open markets across the globe and to spread prosperity to all corners of the earth.”
If you haven’t heard that before – a thousand times before – you just haven’t been listening.
Nor was there much originality in Romney’s vague proposal to condition US foreign aid on the removal of “barriers” to U.S investment and trade – a mercantilist approach that runs the risk of deepening hostility and snarling diplomacy while achieving few useful reforms. Many government institutions, including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the World Bank, and the US Agency for International Development already seek to promote private-public partnerships, just as Clinton does.
Predictably, Romney took random shots at the Iranians and the Obama administration’s economic record. He also took time to praise youth service programs – City Year and Americorps, which Clinton created – that a Romney-Ryan budget would undoubtedly zero out.
President Obama spoke in a profoundly different way that was bracing in its rhetorical approach and its substantive intentions. Addressing the horror of human trafficking as the equivalent of slavery in our time, he eloquently explained why eradicating it is morally urgent for both America and global society, and precisely what he is doing and will do to advance that aim. He announced new policy directives and legal initiatives, domestic and international — and summoned American values and traditional commitments without posturing (or “apologizing”).
Rousing yet thoughtful, it was a memorable speech that improved considerably on Obama’s previous appearances at CGI, and is worth watching or reading for anyone who cares about this issue.
Discussing a grave challenge to humanity before an audience of serious people, the president didn’t mention or even allude to Romney or the Republicans. Why bother? He delivered a knockout punch, without touching them at all.