Open letter to both candidates

Dear President Obama and Governor Romney:

People want something more – and different – from you. And you’re running out of time. They want you to occupy a certain space in our political discourse which is wide open, if only you will seize it. It’s there for the taking. People will revere and respect you for doing so – and the country will be better off.

Last night as I watched the debate, I wondered if the people sitting in the audience felt their questions were truly being answered, or if you were looking right past them, as if you had met someone at a party you were trying to avoid. The same could be said for the people I watched the debate with at a bar, and the cab driver who took me home afterward who told me, “It’s all just campaign talk.” My point is not about better “connecting with voters,” but about true leadership.

People want more from you. They yearn for more. But beware: more doesn’t mean creating more volume or being more contentious or exhibiting more bravado. Last night turned into a brawl; between the first two debates, you’ve both proven you can throw a good punch. Now let’s move on.

The majority of questions last night were about people, their lives, their concerns – and their aspirations for a better life and country. But neither of you really spoke to these matters. Instead, you traded barbs about what the other guy has done, or didn’t do. You complained about the rules. As if at a party, you unceremoniously pivoted from talking to those you deemed less interesting – the American people – to focusing your attention on your “new best friend” (small groups of targeted voters). Meanwhile, the American people were left standing there.

For sure, in the bar where I watched, people were hooting and hollering about the punches you were throwing at each other. It was like “fight night,” where two prize fighters circled one another, attempting to draw blood, decimate the other. It made for good television, even better theatre.

But people want more. They want to know what you are for. They want to know how what you are for will put the nation on a better path. They want room where they can play an active role in helping to move the country and their community forward. They reject that government has a role to play in addressing all problems; but where it does, let’s be clear.

If you’re trying to understand what I’m getting at, then consider this: in my new book, The Work of Hope, people told me they feel like they’re living in the Tower of Babel, filled with endless noise of acrimony and divisiveness, where they cannot find a way out. Your task is to lower the noise and help people gain a sense of possibility and hope about a way out – and a way forward. It is to engage people in what they can do, together, not just what you promise you’ll do for them.

This is the space that is ready to be seized. It is the space people yearn for you to run to, stand within, and speak from. It is from this space that we can restore our belief in ourselves and in one another that we can actually come together and get things done.

It’s time.