Four Keys for Obama and Us

On Wednesday night, President Obama will give his first State of the Union Address. I’m less concerned about his specific speech than I am about the overall trajectory of the nation – and whether he speaks to it. At issue is how we get the nation on the right trajectory. Here are my four keys.

You’ll remember that after the 2008 presidential election, people thought there would be a fundamental shift in the nation’s politics and people’s engagement. I didn’t buy that notion then, or in 2004 when President Bush assumed he had a clear mandate after defeating Senator John Kerry. Make no mistake: people yearn for a new kind of politics, but there’s little consensus in the country about what to do.

At issue is how to navigate these troubled waters and make hope real.

Here are four keys for President Obama, and others, who seek to move the nation forward and restore a sense of possibility in politics and public life.

1. Your authority (and support) is rooted in your knowledge of people’s lives.That is to say, it is not derived from playing power politics, adhering to ideology or voicing populist rhetoric; none these options will bring people together to produce and support positive change. And yet, that’s the game right now. Instead, people want to know that you understand their lives, the issues and concerns they’re wrestling with, and the pace of change they can support and endure. To produce hope and change requires making people and communities the key point of orientation.

2. Small victories count big time. The nation – like many communities – is at an impasse. Everyone is saying, “Enough is enough!” but there is not widespread and deep agreement on what should be done on major concerns. In times like these, what’s most important is to produce meaningful actions that demonstrate our ability to come together and produce change, and which help to restore our sense of confidence and faith in one another. The size of the accomplishment is less important than its trajectory. What’s needed in America, more than anything, is a new trajectory.3. Fight for hope. Notions of “hope” stood at the core of the 2008 election, but where are they now? Hope has been traded in for backroom deals, Washington-centric politics, and more acrimony and divisiveness. Now, in response, many people want the president to come out swinging on health care and other issues, but that’s the wrong fight. The right fight for the president, and other like-minded people from both parties, is to maintain a clear narrative about the kind of politics they seek to create – and to live it every day. It is to set the tone and pace for how issues will be discussed and addressed. This politics fundamentally must be more than about Washington, D.C.4. Engage everyday people in the work of the country. As I travel the country, many of the things people want to get done have little to do with Washington, D.C. politics. For instance, in Detroit and Lansing, MI, people have told me that they want to create safe, caring and connected communities, and they say there is the need for more people to get involved on-the-ground. The same is true on a host of concerns about education and other issues. The president and other leaders should immediately turn outward to people and communities – but not for their support, votes, or money. Instead, they should help to launch a national effort for people to re-engage and reconnect in their communities on issues they care about (I’ll say more about this in future blogs).

So much of what is happening in the nation’s politics and public life is negative and counter-productive. It’s time to put the nation on a different trajectory which will require actively tapping into the nation’s potential and spirit. Only then can we make hope real. More Washington-centric politics will not get any of us where we want to go.