NEW YORK CITY — It takes a lot to make this city sit up and take notice.
The United Nations General Assembly doesn’t even come close. The 100 or so world leaders who have invaded the Big Apple do not seem to have made much of an impact on world-weary New Yorkers.
“We don’t have time to stop for the president,” laughed Jolanda Hernandez, a chef at the Godiva chocolate store on Seventh Avenue. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Obama and all, but I got work to do.”
She was not alone. A few minutes before 10 a.m., a motorcade with American flags flying raced down 50th Street toward UN Plaza; most people did not even pause to look.
“Do you think that was the president?” I asked one elderly gentleman strolling slowly down the sidewalk.
“I dunno. Maybe,” he shrugged, and went on his way.
The convoy apparently was shuttling President Barack Obama to the UN, where he delivered a much-anticipated speech.
Obama opened and closed with a tribute to Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador killed on Sept. 11 in an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
In fact, much of his 30-minute speech was devoted to the violence and fury that has swept the Middle East, as he appealed for tolerance and strength in the face of hatred and bigotry.
“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. “All of us have an interest in standing up to these forces.”
Obama condemned the “crude and disgusting” video that allegedly sparked the violence in Libya, but made clear that the United States would not intervene to clamp down on free speech.
“In every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they're willing to tolerate freedom for others,” said the president.
The overall tone of the speech was lofty and high-minded, but Obama did sound some firm notes. He called for an end to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president whose crackdowns on oppositionists have already cost more than 20,000 lives.
“And as we meet here, we again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop and a new dawn can begin,” he said.
Obama also made clear his stance on Iran’s nuclear program:
“A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” he said, although he did say that he still hoped to resolve the issue through diplomacy.
The president’s message may have been one of forbearance and unity, but the international trappings fooled no one. Obama is fighting for his political life, and his remarks at the UN were every bit as much a campaign speech as any rally or town hall he visited on the stump.
The UN address was not the only, or even the biggest, event on Obama’s calendar on this beautiful fall morning in New York.
At noon he appeared at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, an international forum established by the 42nd president in 2005 to “turn good intentions into real actions and results.”
Here he followed by three hours his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, who spoke at CGI at 9 a.m.
Romney’s speech was also carefully calibrated for the voters, delivering as it did a healthy dose of Romney’s free-enterprise mantra.
“For American foreign aid to become more effective, it must embrace the power of partnerships, access the transformative nature of free enterprise, and leverage the abundant resources that can come from the private sector,” he said.
Romney announced that his administration, should he win in November, would “initiate ‘Prosperity Pacts.’ Working with the private sector, the program will identify the barriers to investment, trade, and entrepreneurialism in developing nations.”
Romney could not refrain from some of his best-loved topics, particularly the subject closest to his heart, his opponent’s weakness.
In fact, even his initial remarks were a slam at Obama, delivered under the guise of a thank you to his host:
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good,” he said. “After that introduction, I guess all I have to do is wait a day or two for the bounce.”
Obama enjoyed a small surge in the polls following the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC earlier this month. Many pointed to Clinton’s speech, delivered on the convention’s second night, as the highlight of the event.
But Romney went on to criticize, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, Obama’s record on foreign policy.
“Many Americans are troubled by the developments in the Middle East. Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people. The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. And Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability. We feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events,” he said.
Obama’s economic record also came in for criticism.
“Sadly, we have lost over half a million manufacturing jobs over the last three and a half years,” said Romney the entrepreneur. “As president, I will reverse this trend by ensuring we have trade that works for America.”
His message on Iran was much harsher than the president’s, in line with the sort of remarks that Romney has been making for months.
”We should not forget — and cannot forget — that not far from here,” he said, “a voice of unspeakable evil and hatred has spoken out, threatening Israel and the civilized world.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York, and spoke to reporters and others on Monday. He insisted that Iran was not threatened by “Zionists,” and that Israel would ultimately be “eliminated.”
Ahmadinejad will address the UN General Assembly Wednesday.
Romney ended on a high note, again with one of his familiar themes:
“A year from now, I hope to return to this meeting as president, having made substantial progress toward achieving the reforms I’ve outlined. But I also hope to remind the world of the goodness and the bigness of the American heart. I will never apologize for America.”
Obama’s speech at Clinton Initiative was far less political, and focused on human trafficking. He left the overt campaigning aside for the moment and outlined a plan to combat what he calls “modern slavery.”
“Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time, and the United States will continue to lead it — in partnership with you,” Obama told the Clinton Initiative audience. “For we know that every life saved — in the words of that great Proclamation — is ‘an act of justice,’ worthy of ‘the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.’"
(Here is a link to Obama’s Clinton Initiative speech.)
These three speeches dominated the headlines most of the day on Tuesday. But the biggest audience was probably not for the UN or even for the much-admired Clinton.
Millions tuned in to see the first couple on “The View,” the morning talk show featuring some of the country’s highest-powered women.
Michelle and Barack talked about their marriage and children, and enjoyed some good-humored banter with their hosts.
President Obama brought a basket to Barbara Walters, who he claimed “pilfers things” when she visits the White House. Now Walters has her very own set of monogrammed napkins, matched, even White House M&Ms, which co-host Whoopi Goldberg tried to nibble during the segment.
The women of “The View” are a pretty liberal crew, and very friendly to the president and his wife. They gave him ample opportunity to get his message across, particularly on the economy.
“What would be so terrible if Mitt Romney were elected?” Walters asked.
The president answered with a quasi-joke.
“Well, you know I think America is so strong, and we’ve got so much going for us that we can survive a lot,” he said. Then he turned serious.
“But the American people don’t want to just survive, we want everyone to thrive.”
The president then outlined his and Romney’s differing visions for America.
“I think, Barbara, that you grow an economy from the middle out, not from the top down,” Obama said. “So that’s a different vision about how we move the country forward, and ultimately it’s going to be up to the American people to make the decision about who’s got the better plan.”
Obama’s critics lost no time in jumping on him for his appearance on the show. The president had left the one-on-one meetings during the UN General Assembly largely to his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
The president’s decision not to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew particular fire.
“In Obama's trip to New York, there's Whoopi but no ‘Bibi,’” chided Reuters.
It is unlikely to matter much. On “The View,” Obama got the only endorsement that really matters.
“I’m voting for him!” said Michelle Obama, to loud audience laughter.