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Public Policy

Former President Clinton makes BIG Show even bigger

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Macy's Chairman, President and CEO Terry Lundgren had a warning for the thousands of retailers who packed into the North Hall at New York City's Javits Convention Center on Monday for the second day of Retail's BIG Show.

"Retail's BIG Show for the last two days has been very big," Lundgren said. "Judging by this audience, I'd have to say in our next guest it's about to get much, much bigger."

As chairman of the NRF Board of Directors, Lundgren drew the honor of introducing the keynote speaker at this year's convention, former President Bill Clinton. Clinton wasn't the first member of his family to speak at the BIG Show – Hillary Clinton set that precedent in 2004 while a member of the U.S. Senate before becoming Secretary of State. But he was the first current or former President to appear, and helped boost attendance to a record 25,500.

"This is a bigger crowd than I usually draw," Clinton quipped as he came on stage. "It makes me feel like I'm President again."

Clinton spoke on "Embracing Our Common Humanity," addressing the issues of globalization ranging from the economy to social implications.

"We live in a world today where all the borders look more like nets than walls," he said. "We are interdependent to a degree we have never been before."

"The one thing sure about the future is that we're going to have to share it with a lot of people. We can share the prosperity or we can share the misery. It's up to us."

Clinton acknowledged the importance of retail to the nation's economy and job creation, citing statistics from an NRF study that found retail accounts for close to 20 percent of GDP and supports one in four U.S. jobs.

Clinton, in fact, is among the millions of Americans who found their first jobs in retail.

"I could have been one of you," he said, explaining that his first job was at age 13 working in an Arkansas grocery store. The teen-aged Clinton also launched his first business venture as a micro-retailer, convincing the grocer to let him sell comic books on the side – feeling "like a millionaire" after grossing about $100 on a collection of vintage issues but realizing now that they could have sold for thousands.

Clinton said the recent recession and still-challenging recovery have changed the way people think about jobs and the economy.

"I never doubted for a minute that I could make a living and almost everyone in my generation felt the same way," he said. "The recent economic crisis has changed shattered that."

But helping create jobs can help individuals regain that level of confidence.

"If you are leading the country out of the recession, you are doing something far more important than putting people back to work and putting money in their pockets," he said. "This economic crisis is about more than economics. It has gone to the core of people's sense of who they are and what they're worth."

Clinton drew a round of applause after praising Brazil as a "thriving democracy" with one of the greenest environmental policies in the world. Brazilians were among the largest contingents of international visitors at this year's convention. He also thanked Lundgren for Macy's agreement to sell artisan products from Haiti in its stores, helping that nation recover earthquake damage.

Clinton's speech was followed by a question and answer session with Lundgren, covering topics from where he had done his Christmas shopping – mostly in small, local shops – to immigration policy, international trade and health care reform.

Clinton said U.S. manufacturing should focus on high-end, high-tech work rather than low-level jobs "we probably can't save anyhow" and that doing so would remove the need for protectionist trade policies. He welcomed educated immigrants who can use their skills to help create jobs here, and said Congress should try to fix health care reform rather than repealing it if it survives a Supreme Court case scheduled to be heard this year. He also endorsed corporate tax reform that would eliminate many deductions and credits in return for lower rates, but said the research and development tax credit should be maintained.

If you were in the audience for President Clinton's keynote, what was your biggest takeaway?