NEW YORK — President Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, appeared within hours of each other Tuesday at a global charitable gathering hosted by former president Bill Clinton, each focusing on how the United States can better promote prosperity and human rights abroad and at home.
Romney, addressing the Clinton Global Initiative, called for an overhaul of the country’s foreign assistance programs that he said would stimulate economic growth across the developing world.
Hours after delivering his annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama spoke before the group, outlining additional steps the United States will take to combat human trafficking, which he told the lunchtime audience “must be called by its true name: modern slavery.”
The presidential candidates never crossed paths, and partisanship was largely out of view during the back-to-back appearances before thousands of the Clinton group’s members.
He got in one jab, saying, “I will never apologize for America.” Romney has frequently said that Obama has offered apologies to foreign governments, but independent fact-checkers have disputed that contention.
After Clinton delivered a warm introduction of the Republican, Romney announced his proposal for a “Prosperity Pact,” which he said would link trade policy with development policy to promote investment and entrepreneurship in developing nations.
“Nothing we can do as a nation will change lives and nations more effectively and permanently than sharing the insight that lies at the foundation of America’s own economy, and that is that free people pursuing happiness in their own ways build a strong and prosperous nation,” Romney said in his 17-minute speech.
His foreign aid plan, which he called “a new approach for a new era,” echoes the domestic policy themes of his campaign. Under his plan, the government’s foreign aid would be more closely linked to trade policies as well as private investment and corporate partnerships. He said this would “empower individuals, encourage innovators and reward entrepreneurs.”
For example, Romney would support new financing structures for small and medium-size enterprises that are too large to benefit from microfinance programs but too small to acquire capital from banks.
He stopped short of criticizing U.S. foreign assistance programs or saying he would cut foreign aid budgets, as many Republican leaders have done. But Romney did contend that foreign aid programs focus too much on delivering social services instead of seeding longer-term reforms.
“A temporary aid package can give an economy a boost,” Romney said. “It can fund some projects. It can pay some bills. It can employ some people some of the time. But it can’t sustain an economy, not for the long term. It can’t pull the whole cart, if you will, because at some point the money runs out. But an assistance program that helps unleash free enterprise creates enduring prosperity.”
Later, Obama gave an impassioned speech against human trafficking, noting that some girls sold off by poor families are no older than his two daughters.
“I’ve made it clear that the United States will be a leader in this global movement” against trafficking, Obama said, adding that his administration is helping other countries meet international goals designed to reduce trafficking and to call out those not working hard enough on the issue.
“Nations must speak with one voice — that our people and our children are not for sale,” Obama said.
He added that the United States must stop the human trafficking within its boundaries, which mostly affects immigrant communities that are sometimes more vulnerable because of their members’ undocumented statuses and poverty. The president said he has stepped up efforts to confront the crime domestically.
“We cannot ask other nations to do what we are not doing ourselves,” he said, adding that the United States will take steps to “go after traffickers,” including working more cooperatively with outside investigators and coordinating with transportation companies.
Obama said he signed an executive order to better ensure that U.S. tax money never goes to companies or groups that conduct human trafficking. He asked companies to be vigilant because trafficking is never “a business model.”
“Let’s recommit to the broader forces that push people into bondage in the first place,” the president said, addressing other nations’ governments.
The gathering was nonpartisan, but Romney did make one reference to the state of the presidential campaign.
After Clinton walked offstage, Romney suggested that the former president was responsible for Obama’s lead in polls.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this election season, by the way, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good,” Romney said, drawing laughter from the audience. “All I’ve got to do now is wait a couple of days for that bounce.”