With just six months until the November Presidential election, a heavy fog of partisanship has already descended. And it is likely to get foggier and thicker as Election Day approaches.
America is at the precipice today with a viral pandemic our new reality. Americans are hurting for leadership. We need a presidential campaign that provides a constructive foundation upon which our nation can emerge: re-imagined and rebuilt.
Negative ads and rhetoric have begun to fill media airways - both for or against Trump or Biden. Charges and countercharges are being levied as each campaign fights over a smaller and smaller portion of undecided voters.
As the dark wave of the pandemic rolls over the nation and economic insecurity mounts along with rising unemployment, stock market jitters, jobs and the economy will be front and center: paramount in the 2020 campaign.
Past as Prologue?
With Americans hurting, many people are open to FDR-style government intervention to help stabilize and improve our lives. During that dark Depression decade of the 1930s, President Roosevelt rose to the challenge, not only proffering hope, but enacting creative initiatives to get people working again. He acknowledged he did not have all the answers, but 'crossed the river by feeling for the stones' as the Chinese say, seeking and pushing policies to build an effective foundation of hope for jobs. As FDR famously said, "Do something and if that does not work, do something else. But for God's sake, do something."
As Thomas Paine said during the American Revolution, "These are the times that try men's souls", Indeed, now is the time to "do something" in America.
When Jim Blanchard ran for Governor of Michigan in the recession days of 1982 his mantra was: "Jobs. Jobs. Jobs!" In 1986, he updated that slogan for his ultimately successful re-election to: "Jobs. Jobs. Jobs and MORE jobs!"
And in 1992, Bill Clinton's Presidential bid against then-President George HW Bush was built on his campaign strategist James Carville's now famous slogan, "It's
the economy, stupid."
With the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic whipping out jobs in the blink of a virus and our transition from one of the lowest unemployment rates in America to now having the highest since the Great Depression, the economy and our jobs should be front and center in this election.
It may be safe to assume that along with jobs and the economy, the handling - or the mishandling, of the pandemic - plus faulting China for its role in the crisis, will create a volatile campaign cocktail.
I believe we need a campaign that instead offers hope and an economic path forward. America is built on ideals - those that inspire and uplift, with plans and strategies built on a firm foundation of knowledge, science, and new economic realities.
Pivot from Blame to Action
American history is replete with examples of casting aspirations and blame in the mist of economic downturns. This strategy has proven to be an effective political tool, but is highly ineffective in solving problems of job creation and economic opportunity.
What is needed instead is resistance - resistance against any campaign based on simplistic finger pointing and blame. Blaming Democrats or Republicans, former presidents, governors, the WHO (World Health Organization) or the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and China is neither a strategy nor a plan that gets America working again.
Let Us Ask Questions
When candidates and their surrogates start the blame game, the media and voters' refrain needs to be: "And how does this help get Americans back to work? How will this restore retirees' 401k savings? How does this restart the economy? How will this provide affordable health care? How will this enhance educational opportunities, strengthen our workforce preparedness programs and help jump-start America's future and not our past?
Instead, we must stipulate that while mistakes were indeed made in China - YES, they "coulda, shoulda" been more transparent - but we ourselves must become more thoughtful as well. We must admit that our nation 'coulda and shoulda' been better prepared to combat the pandemic. Implying it was a partisan hoax, hoping it will just go away like some passing flu virus, relying on a miracle drug when intense research is needed from the scientific community, or looking for a quick Clorox fix is NOT A PLAN.
"Blame" does not address the challenges facing America today. These challenges were here before COVID and have been intensified with it. Blame only diverts attention from the tough conversations we need to address. It is part of a simple division and subtraction strategy meant to separate us as a united people - we need to demand real solutions to the challenges we are facing.
Our collective futures must be built on a foundation of hope inspired by thoughtful plans to invest in America. Now is a time for our vaunted American ingenuity and entrepreneurial zeal to go
- not unlike our nation's scientists now laboring in science and university labs to produce a vaccine. With entrepreneurial wind beneath our sails, Americans can get what we pay for with our tax dollars: a government that works FOR us, not against us.
Investment Not Blame
Now is not the time for disinvestment in America. Instead, we need to invest in:
* Education. With state and local tax bases eroded due to the pandemic and the associated economic carnage, we need a federal plan that doubles down on educational attainment from cradle to the grave. Knowledge and skill are the glue that binds us.
* Workforce preparedness. Even before COVID -19, we needed an upshift to automation and AI (artificial intelligence). The rest of the global workforce has been shifting this way, right under the feet of the average American worker. Creating training and retraining programs to up-skill workers is an investment that pays dividends.
* National Service. With the world economy on pause and work opportunities evaporating for both high schoolers and university graduates entering the workforce, we are seeing an exceptional opportunity to create a year of national service. During the decade of the Great Depression, FDR created the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and WPA (Works Progress Administration) that added value to our nation by improving local community infrastructure in America.
* National Mentorship/Apprenticeship Academy. Let's create community centers where older workers who were disrupted by the 2020 pandemic can pass on their skills and knowledge to a new generation, thereby earning both a paycheck and pride in contributing to the re-building and re-skilling of America.
* Technology. America needs to maintain our primacy in technology, making investments in the future to include AI (artificial intelligence), 5G networks, and big data.
* Infrastructure. If there was ever a time to dig deep and invest in infrastructure projects across America it is NOW: Rebuilding roads, bridges, ports, water pipes and sewers, make broadband ubiquitous and Internet connectivity universal for rich and poor in our communities.
This election needs to be about CHANGE that leads to real progress for Americans. Blame has never fixed anything. It will NOT fix America.
Here is what WILL: An investment strategy for Americans.
Tom Watkins is a former Michigan State Superintendent of Schools (2001-05) and former President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Fl. 1996-01) and is a business and educational consultant.