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Opinion: On Global Stage, Romney Again Shows He's An Arms-Length Kind of Guy

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I have strong feelings about Mitt Romney. Nevertheless, I was eager to see him speak at the Clinton Global Initiative Tuesday morning. I wanted to witness the CGI phenomenon: that Romney could enter it as a safe space just weeks after Clinton savaged his campaign in Charlotte.  I wondered whether Romney would find surer footing in this setting and with this audience: a room heavily populated by CEOs, international business leaders and members of the 1% talking about technocratic and systemic innovations more than politics.  Plus, I'd never seen Romney speak in person.

What I saw didn't make me think more or less of him, but did make me feel more strongly that he's not ready to be our representative to the world.

Romney should come off as a worldly guy. He has traveled since his missionary years, and his business experience had to expose him to cosmopolitan people, places and influences. Yet, since 2008, when he claimed that the French replaced marriage with seven-year contracts, he has seemed to be playing the fool. His recent England visit furthered that impression. And at CGI — as he spoke to leaders from around the world — he launched into a celebration of American exceptionalism that seemed intended to diminish the contributions and partnership of the audience.

Maybe he was appealing to a conservative crowd beyond the ballroom, using the stage as his chance to grandstand while the United Nations General Assembly took place across town.  Maybe he just doesn't believe in applauding collaboration. Maybe his "I built this" mantra that rang through the Republican Convention is more than a slogan. Maybe he doesn't care a whole lot about how other people feel.

This is only one of the differences between him and his host at CGI.  Bill Clinton thanks everyone and makes everyone feel welcome, including the standard-bearer of his rival party. It's not just Clinton's warm speaking style that sharply differs from Romney's stiffness, which was on display (though Mitt did open with a successful joke hoping for a bounce from being introduced by Clinton). Their style reflects something deeper in how the two relate to the world: one with an embrace, the other at a distance.

Another example — Romney listed sources of concern around the world, presumably threats the Obama administration is not handling sufficiently. In his litany of troubles was Egypt's new president Mohamed Morsi. Morsi is Clinton's guest at the conference and its closing speaker this afternoon.

When Romney left the stage, he shook President Clinton's hand. Just about everyone else shared an embrace. Romney is an arm's length kind of guy.

That said, Mitt's not running against Bill and how he compares to Obama is the more critical question.  This morning highlighted their differences as well. Romney dedicated his speech to free enterprise — to "unleashing" the power of a free market around the world, and to emphasizing how much the private sector could generate economic prosperity in developing countries. Presumably, when he spoke about the limited potential of foreign aid to stimulate an economy, he was also taking a dig at America's own stimulus under President Obama.

In Romney's world, business will lead the way.

Then Obama spoke and dedicated his speech to human trafficking, which he called the slavery of our time. He delivered stirring remarks about those around the world who are trapped in servitude. He didn't spare America, noting that for the first time the State Department report on trafficking includes a section on what's happening in our own country.

Human trafficking is a moral issue, a global issue and a serious issue. It's one that NGOs combat and need the full cooperation of governments to address. It's not, though, an issue that the private sector will well tackle on its own.

In Obama's world, business can't do it all.

I'm not sure it was intentional that Obama spoke about a positive role government could play to stand apart from the business-focused Romney, but it had the effect of reminding me why one of them was a CEO, and the other is a head of state.