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Clinton’s Confab Shifts to Take on Economic Challenges

By Tom Watson on September 25, 2011No Comment

In its early years, the Clinton Global Initiative often seemed to present a kind of Democratic administration in exile – a gentle yet important correction to the Bush White House. The former President acted as a dealmaker supreme, bringing together big corporate interests, major philanthropists, heads of state and their governments, and global nonprofits in a kind of old school investment bank for progress and development.

And CGI served as a non-threatening, open-handed collaborative that stood squarely in the mainstream center of the political spectrum – but clearly to the left of the White House.

This year, when the current occupant of the White House praised Bill Clinton as the nation’s “Do-Gooder in Chief,” there was more than a little irony in the worlds of President Barack Obama. Because in its seventh annual confab this past week in midtown Manhattan, Obama’s Democratic predecessor once more had assembled the kind of open, ordered collaborative the President might well wish Washington more resembled.

And both CGI and its energetic founder still stood squarely in the mainstream center of the political spectrum – but clearly to the left of the White House.

This was my sixth CGI annual meeting (I also spoke at CGI University in Miami last spring) and it has been fascinating to watch the organization’s evolution. Then too, this is Bill Clinton’s 10th year working on his post-Presidential philanthropy and development projects. The numbers continue to be big: CGI has garnered more than 2,100 commitments worth nearly $70 billion. But it’s clear to me that Clinton’s own thinking has evolved, and that he still gestates new ideas on the “art of the possible” during these annual meetings and his year-round work with CGI and his foundation.

And it’s not so much driven by philosophy or ideology (indeed, Clinton’s ideas of government’s role in the world seem remarkably intact) as much as by necessity – and the challenge of these deeply threatening economic times.

“There are challenges that we all face and we have to face them together,” said President Clinton at one of the plenary sessions. “You should feel good about being part of the non-governmental movement, but I do not think you should be anti-government.”

There was a subtle shift in CGI this year that fit in under the focus headline of “jobs” that displayed a keen sense of the present.  President Clinton was talking quite a bit about his upcoming book on creating jobs. The main stage “commitments” (those promises of projects, collaboration, and funding that define CGI’s operations) feature the former President and the usual range of celebrities, heads of state, big corporations, nonprofit leaders and assorted do-gooders. I’m not sure if this was commented on elsewhere, but I found the scarcity of big financial institutions both onstage and in general evidence at CGI this year to be somewhat telling. There was stronger emphasis on companies that make things, and on projects involving retrofitting vast portions of the economy (energy efficient real estate deals were the big-ticket headline of the meeting, in my view), and interesting, on labor.

One of the signature commitments came from the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers to fund energy-effecient infrastructure in cities. The initiative led Reuters’ coverage and signaled Clinton’s widening of CGI in the last two years to focus more on serious domestic issues:

With the United States possibly on the brink of another recession and the unemployment rate at more than 9 percent, Clinton trumpeted a pledge by the AFL-CIO labor federation and the American Federation of Teachers to reinvest $10 billion over the next five years in energy-efficient infrastructure.

“This is a huge deal. This could be done not just in the United States but in every European country, in every wealthy Asian country. This system will work and you get guaranteed savings,” Clinton told attendees during the opening session.

The unions have worked with state treasurers and pension funds associated with labor to make the green investments. For example, two of the largest U.S. public pension funds, California’s CalPERS and CalSTERS, have allocated over $1.1 billion to the effort.

In a small backstage gathering of bloggers on CGI’s final day, President Clinton popped open a Diet Coke and held forth of a wide range of current events that – in total – put him (gently) to the left of Obama Administration – or perhaps more accurately, a bit more plainspoken than a sitting President can be on pressing issues. The former President poured blame on the government Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for holding up the Palestinian peace process (earning the enmity of neo-conservatives like Elliot Abrams in the process), chastised the international community for not making good on its pledges to rebuild Haiti, urged a liberalization of U.S. policy on refugee settlement (“keeping people in long-term limbo is a waste of human potential”), talked about food security in the developing world, and blasted climate change denial.

He also spoke in strong, tough terms about U.S. immigration policy: “America needs to become more open to immigration again,” he told the group. “We simply need to be more pro-immigrant. I don’t think it’s particularly threatening to jobs.”

Peeking briefly into national U.S. politics, President Clinton criticized what he called “the non-fact-based political debate,” arguing that the he said, she said “horse-race” style of national political reporting means “nobody rings the bell if the facts are wrong. There’s no bell ringing, and that means there’s a huge disconnect not just in the message, but in the method.”

It’s a point that wasn’t lost when President Obama pushed his jobs bill in his CGI speech in the main hall – nor when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Chelsea Clinton, who clearly has a public life on the agenda. “I would make a plea for more people with knowledge,” said Secretary Clinton, “to not stand on the sidelines and shrug or throw a shoe at the TV when political discussions take place, but to try to participate, play a productive role.”

The sidelines will clearly not include her husband during the nascent political season. It was no accident in my mind that President Obama hit the golf course with President Clinton in Washington after CGI closed. Facing a re-election fight during difficult economic times of high unemployment coupled with general dissatisfaction over the direction of the country.

Obama was clearly in recruiting mode. With his popular Secretary of State out of action for active campaigning, there is no more valuable surrogate for next year’s election than her husband – who so clearly brought domestic issues to the fore at his annual CGI confab, and placed himself – with a grin, and a pat on the back on the stage at the Sheraton last week – just to the left of the White House.

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