09.22.09

Obama Does the Clinton Show

Bill Clinton’s annual brainstorming festival, the Clinton Global Initiative, launched in New York on Tuesday. To kick things off, 42 had 44 in—to urge grassroots efforts to combat global problems.

President Barack Obama kicked off the Clinton Global Initiative with a call for service and international cooperation despite difficult economic times.

"We need a new spirit of global partnership and that is exactly the spirit that guides this organization,” he said in his speech. “I hope it is the spirit that guides my administration."

He repeatedly spoke of the need for both grassroots and private-sector cooperation in addressing climate change, terrorism, and other global issues.

“Real progress does not come just from the top down,” he said.

This year's opening day festivities at the Clinton Global Initiative were a far cry from just one year earlier, when nearly all coverage of the event was focused on the presidential campaign and how the candidates speaking at the event would respond to the recent economic collapse. At that time, the world was less than two weeks into a financial crisis that threatened to turn into a complete meltdown. John McCain, who spoke at the event, had suspended his campaign earlier that morning in response. Sarah Palin, still a new and mysterious figure at that point, was in attendance, as was Joe Biden. Then-Senator Barack Obama delivered an address via video.

Obama spoke repeatedly of the need for grassroots and private-sector cooperation in addressing climate change, terrorism and other global challenges. “Real progress does not come just from the top down,” he said.

Today, Obama addressed the assembled world leaders, CEOs, and NGO heads as president in somewhat less dire circumstances. Earlier in the day, he delivered a speech on climate change at the United Nations, warning that "the time we have to reverse this tide is running out." Big words, but with a bloody partisan war over health care still unfinished and the prospect of the president’s own party being even more divided over climate change (legislation on which must also go through Sen. Max Baucus), many observers greeted his speech with open skepticism.

Obama touched on the issue only briefly in his remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative, saying that the United States was “working toward deep cuts in emissions."

Joe Conason: How Bill Got His Mojo Back Clinton gave a boost to the 44th president earlier by using a conversation with Chile's president, Michelle Bachelet, to make a powerful point on health-care reform. After Bachelet told Clinton that Chile's GDP per capita was less than $15,000 (versus about three times as much in the U.S.), Clinton said that American lawmakers should be embarrassed that Chile can provide health care for all its citizens. "I think it's important to know what all these people who are criticizing the president are defending," he said. And what, exactly, do attendees at the CGI have to look forward to, after the glow of the Obama speech fades? The event is a mixer for the world's elite in business, charity, and politics, who are required to commit to contributions to various causes from climate change to world hunger in order to attend.

"What has made this meeting unique from the very beginning is that each participant is actually asked to make a very specific commitment to do something measurable," Clinton said in his opening address Tuesday evening.

The event also creates a kind of do-gooder marketplace, matching NGOs and policy wonks with wealthy donors to pitch to. For their money, CEOs get a great annual opportunity to schmooze and make connections with the creme de la creme in the world of ideas—and generate goodwill among opinion elites that can come in handy at a time when financial leaders are under fire for the global economic meltdown.

The event includes various working sessions and panel discussions of relevant development issues that include participants from Brad Pitt to the president of Iceland. Be sure to check back in with The Daily Beast throughout the week for reports every day on these various group sessions.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.