It was billed as dueling speeches. But by the time Mitt Romney completed his speech to the Clinton Global Initiative and President Obama stepped down from the podium at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, it was clear that it wasn't really a fair fight. Nor, realistically, could it ever be when an incumbent president addresses the world and an audience that included other presidents, prime ministers, and royalty while a challenger gives a more narrowly focused speech in a hotel ballroom.
The incumbent, blessed with all the trappings of his office and the power to act, is almost always going to come out ahead of a challenger who is limited to the power to promise.
Both Obama and Romney rose to the occasion, neither being overtly partisan in his remarks. Romney gave a solid speech that was limited to a celebration of free enterprise and free trade and an explanation of how he would try to refashion American foreign aid if he is elected president. Casting current foreign aid formulas as a relic of a bygone era, he said that there will be three tests of aid in his administration — humanitarian needs, American strategic interests, and programs that champion free enterprise, free trade, and work.
(FULL TEXT: Obama's Speech to the U.N. General Assembly)
The president's speech was far more sweeping. Unlike Romney, who could afford to aim his speech at U.S. voters, Obama had to speak to two audiences: a global community that wants to know what the world's only superpower will do about the developments reshaping the Middle East, and a domestic electorate that hears criticisms of his foreign policy. He had to balance explaining to the world why America cherishes free speech — even if it takes the form of a vile video — with promising the country to protect U.S. vital interests.
After three earlier U.N. speeches that were eminently forgettable, the president pulled it off this year in his most effective address yet to the world body. Perhaps in a sign of solidarity after the slaying of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya, a U.N. audience that almost never applauds anything said by a U.S. president at its annual opening interrupted Obama eight times for applause. Obama opened and closed his speech talking about Stevens's sacrifice and casting his death as a blow aimed just as much against the United Nations as the United States.
In several striking ways, this speech was the international version of Obama's 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention that catapulted him onto the national political scene. "A politics based only on anger — one based on dividing the world between us and them — not only sets back international cooperation, it ultimately undermines those who tolerate it," he said. He added, "It is time to leave the call of violence and the politics of division behind. On so many issues, we face a choice between the promise of the future or the prisons of the past."
The speech did not break major new ground on foreign policy. It pledged support for a two-state solution in the Middle East but did not offer a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Obama warned that "time is not unlimited" for diplomacy to head off an Iranian nuclear bomb, but he did not delineate a new "red line" for Iran.
But the president's speech did outline the administration's approach to the Arab spring and the tensions roiling those countries that are coming to grips with their newfound democracy. It did offer a strong defense of American values. It balanced a condemnation of that video mocking the Prophet Muhammad with a demand for an end to the desecration of images of Jesus Christ and denial of the Holocaust.
And it did put the region's leaders on notice that they need to do more to crack down on the violence if they want to retain American friendship and aid. "The events of the last two weeks speak to the need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab world moving to democracy," he said. That was addressed to the region. But, with Romney criticizing some of the new leaders as being insufficiently pro-American, the next sentence was directed at voters who hear that criticism: "Let me be clear: Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad. We do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue."
Shifting back to a world audience, he stressed "the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism." Surprisingly, that drew applause before the president added, "It is time to marginalize those who — even when not resorting to violence — use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as the central organizing principle of politics."
And he warned the region that there must be more security provided by host governments. "No government or company, no school or NGO will be confident working in a country where its people are endangered," he said. "For partnership to be effective, our citizens must be secure and our efforts must be welcomed."