Coming Jobs Speech: More than Playing Games?

President Obama will make the short drive from The White House to the halls of Congress on Thursday night to deliver his long-awaited “jobs speech.” What should we expect from him and the Republicans and what will give people the confidence that we are headed in the right direction? Thus far, much of the analysis of his anticipated speech has been about politics, pure and simple. Newspapers and other media outlets have been running a seemingly endless stream of new polls that dissect the president’s re-election prospects. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates have commenced a series of events this week in South Carolina where they are relentlessly skewering Obama, while they declare their undying fealty to lower taxes.

Just last week was consumed by the childish tit-for-tat over when the president would even speak to a joint session of Congress, as if this was the salient issue at hand. The president attempted to schedule the event for this Wednesday, while Speaker John Boehner said “no thanks” and forced Obama to shift his visit to Thursday. Even on Thursday the president faces more game-playing, as he must take to the podium especially early in the evening (7PM ET) in order to squeeze his speech in before the National Football League kicks off its season later that night.

We now find ourselves mired in a great recession from which we cannot seem to shake loose. Just when a glimmer of good job news peeks through the dark economic clouds, we hear about yet another batch of lay-offs or plant closings. Recently, I saw a number of news reports on job fairs, and one in LA, in particular, has stuck in my mind, where thousands of people had lined up to give their 30-second pitch to prospective employers. It was as if they were pitching a movie to a LA film producer, where, in a matter seconds, they must make their own personal story so compelling that someone, anyone, will give them a shot.

In watching various Labor Day festivities over the long weekend, I often wondered about what those individuals in LA and elsewhere, who are without jobs or adequate pay, were thinking. To me, the speeches and rallies and cable TV shows, among other activities, merely amplified tired and worn-out political rhetoric and treated people as mere pawns in a game.

Of course, there is no silver bullet – no single policy prescription, no grand plan – that will enable the country to right itself. And I don’t think most Americans are waiting for such a magic plan; more than anyone, they recognize just how difficult these times are, that moving ahead will not be easy, and that all the game-playing is only delaying the inevitable hard work that must be done.

So, our leaders need to do a number of critical things moving ahead, all of which must take the form of a narrative – we desperately need a coherent story about ourselves. Such a narrative must capture and reflect people’s sense of reality – where we are, how we got here, and how we feel. Specific policy proposals must speak to this context and help people see why and how the proposals will help us move ahead.  And, please, during this process, spare us the false promises and inflating of expectations.

Importantly, I also believe we must find ways for the American people to step forward and become co-creators of this narrative. I’ll have more to say about this in the coming weeks. But for now, simply look at the clean-up efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, in places like Vermont and New Jersey, which show the capacity and resolve of Americans. These and other situations should be harnessed to make room for people to come together and restore their faith in our ability to get things done. Whether it’s cleaning up schools, weather-stripping homes, job training, or taking action in the aftermath of a natural disaster, there are things we can and should do. Then as we move ahead, we can begin to give shape to our new narrative.

My hope is that the president and his Republican counter-parts only step forward to offer their views if they are ready and willing to speak to people’s real concerns and their aspirations, and to help us create a new story about ourselves.

Otherwise, maybe they should stay home and get ready for the football game.