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GUEST COMMENTARY: Awaiting Obama's jobs speech: Will it harness the American spirit?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011 | 5:36 p.m. CDT

On Thursday, President Obama will pay a visit to Capitol Hill to deliver his long-awaited jobs speech.

What should we expect from him — and from the Republicans in Congress? What will he say to reassure people that we're headed in the right direction?

Thus far, much of the analysis of Obama's anticipated speech has been purely political. Newspapers and other media outlets have been running a seemingly endless stream of polls dissecting the president’s re-election prospects, while Republican presidential candidates have spent their weeks in South Carolina skewering Obama and declaring their undying fealty to low taxes.

Last week was consumed by a childish tit-for-tat over when the president would be able to speak to a joint session of Congress — as if this were the salient issue at hand. House Speaker John Boehner rejected the president's attempt to schedule his speech for Wednesday evening, forcing Obama to shift his visit to 6 p.m. Thursday, when he must squeeze his speech in before the NFL kicks off its season later that night.

We find ourselves mired in a great recession from which we cannot seem to shake loose. Just as a glimmer of good job news peeks through the dark economic clouds, we hear of yet another batch of firings or plant closings.

Recently, I saw a number of news reports on job fairs. One in Los Angeles, in particular, has stuck in my mind, where thousands of people lined up to give a 30-second pitch to prospective employers. It was as if they were pitching a movie to a Hollywood film producer; in just a matter of seconds, they must make their personal story so compelling that someone, anyone, will give them a shot.

In watching various Labor Day festivities over the long weekend, I wondered about what those individuals without jobs or adequate pay, in L.A. and elsewhere, were thinking.

To me, the speeches, 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 on such a magic plan. Americans 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.

Our leaders need to do a number of critical things moving ahead, all of which must take the form of a narrative — one that captures and reflects people's sense of reality. We desperately need a coherent story about ourselves, where we are, how we got here and how we feel. Specific policy proposals must speak to this and help people see why and how those proposals will help us move ahead. And, please, during this process, spare us the false promises and inflating of expectations.

I believe we must find ways for the American people to step forward and become co-creators of this narrative. In the aftermath of recent natural disasters, Americans have shown their capacity to cope. This resolve should be harnessed in a way that makes room for people to come together and restore their faith in our ability to get things done. Through this, we can begin to give shape to our new, necessary narrative.

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

Otherwise, maybe they should stay home and get ready for Thursday night's football game.

Richard C. Harwood is founder and president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation in Bethesda, Md.


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