State of the Union: What Next?

After last night’s State of the Union message and the Republican response, where to now? While the House Chamber was more civil last night during the president’s speech, civility alone will not generate the progress Americans yearn for. Instead, specific actions are now needed. Here are five key steps for us to focus on.

The context for last night’s speeches is essential to keep front and center. Politics has become too acrimonious and divisive. And too many people in the country feel left behind, while others struggle to keep going. We know these things; but there’s more. Underlying these and other elements is a thirst for the restoration of people’s belief in themselves and in one another; in our ability to come together to get things done. Even amid people’s hunkering down these days, they want to step back into the public square and be a part of something larger than themselves. They want to work not only for their own good, but the common good.

With this context in mind, here are five key steps we should take:

1. Hope still matters, maybe even more than change. The 2008 presidential race was all about “hope and change.” Of course, people want jobs, health care, safe streets, swifter movement toward energy independence. But the extent and manner of the change people want is still unclear. And we must not confuse a call for change with people’s hunger for hope. Americans know the challenges before us cannot be solved over night; they recognize there is much work to be done. As we work through questions of change, it is hope that people need right now: a belief that we can make progress amid our differences and that the progress is believable and real. We must not lose sight of this.

2. Focus on doable steps moving forward. Much of the president’s first year or more was a debate about “comprehensive” change. Now, even with new signs of civility, it remains clear from last night’s speeches and commentary that large differences remain between Democrats and Republicans, and even within the two parties. Our response must not be to turn to small, marginal actions merely to say we did something – there is too much at stake. Rather, what is required is real progress – clear signs that we are moving in the right direction. The most important thing for us to do is to get the country moving on the right trajectory and to create a renewed sense of momentum. That will come by taking doable, relevant steps and demonstrating that progress is still possible.

3. Mobilize everyday people for the common good. Most of what was said last night was about what government needs to do or shouldn’t do. And yet nowhere was there a call to mobilize Americans to join together and take action in their communities. The one exception was when the president talked about education. Education may, in fact, be the best place to engage and mobilize people. Much of what needs to be done must occur outside the school-house doors, in communities, where people and their neighbors need to take greater ownership of raising and educating all kids. We can do this, but there must be leadership. It’s why the Harwood Institute is working with United Way Worldwide to mobilize people in communities on education. But much more can be done, and now is the time.4. Beat the drum on “innovation.” The president for sometime has been talking about “innovation.” And yet, in my work throughout the country, I see a clear competition between impulses for “planning” and “innovation.” Too often, when confronted by a challenge, we reach to do more endless planning. It’s true, planning is required for all good, sound actions. But at the very heart of the challenge facing communities and the nation as a whole, is the need for us to embrace a mindset and practice of innovation. We must not look for perfect or certain answers, but give ourselves permission to go down a different path, engage in more trial and error, and be open to new solutions, so that we can place ourselves on the right trajectory. To create new answers, innovation must take root in communities across the country.

5. We must turn outward. So much of what is happening these days is driven by an inward pull among individuals, within organizations and communities, and across our nation. But the challenges we face – and our deep desire to act on our aspirations – cannot be met by people going it alone. Nor can they be solved through retreat or reaction in attempts to protect our narrow interests. Rather, so many of the challenges we confront can only be effectively addressed by people taking action together. For that to occur, we must change our very orientation, our posture, our stance and turn outward toward our communities and one another. This won’t cost us a dime, but it will pay huge dividends. We must reengage and reconnect.

Of course, there is much more to be said the day after the State of Union, but this where I would put money. We must place ourselves on a new course. We must engage in new ways. It can be done. To do so, I urge us to take these five steps.