What To Look For In The Next President

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As the 2012 election approaches, America is in a state of malaise. Massive debt, unfettered spending, economic decline and partisan divide have served to undermine the great American narrative that is predicated on optimism and a “can do” attitude.

As I assess the candidates for President, I will be looking for the one who most fully understands why we need to resurrect the compelling narrative for America. The compelling narrative has four basic components:

Aspirational: President John F. Kennedy spoke to our better nature in 1962, when, at Rice University, he laid down the challenge of reaching the moon in a decade, His words still inspire us nearly 50 years later:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

His vision was ambitious, his goal worthy, and his target understandable. This is why his words excited a nation to follow. Similar aspirations drove the pioneers west to settle America, drove our nation to wage world wars, hot and cold, against evil, and drove a president to declare war on poverty.

Visceral: The legacy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower is a national interstate system of highways that crisscross America and connect our economy. In 1955, he spoke of systems that unite us as a people. His words rang true to a shared vision for America:

Together, the united forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear—United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.

Most of post-World War II America was still dependent on the two-lane national highway system that included Route 66 and Route 30. Americans instinctively followed Eisenhower’s leadership that they saw as advancing their quality of life and jump starting the economy into higher gear. They knew instinctively that this would require a modern, multi-lane, high speed roadway system, so Eisenhower’s narrative was enacted and 50,000 miles on interstate highway were constructed over the next five decades.

Fills a Gap: Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently framed the civil rights issue in human terms in a 1967 speech:

Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.

Americans understood that a moral, political and economic gap existed between black and white America. The compelling narrative of the civil rights movement led to proposals for new policies and programs to narrow the gap and Americans responded.

Pays Dividends: The compelling narrative pays dividends all along the way. The space program produced better computers, materials and science. The interstate system gave rise to the motel industry and suburban development. The push west provided impetus to build the transcontinental railroad. World Wars sent men to war and women into industry. Policies that grew out of the civil rights movement made America a more inclusive nation.

In 2011, we have no compelling narrative. The space program is about to be de-funded, as we have retreated from the moon and settled for a low orbit space station. The interstate system is beginning to crumble as the benefits have been exhausted and no new vision has been created. Public policies designed to close the racial gap are being scrutinized because the problem still exists. In short, the great movements have stopped paying dividends and Americans have lost interest and, more important, lost confidence.

President Obama has tried to create a compelling narrative around renewable energy. This has been undermined by the burst of the ethanol (corn fuel) bubble and the relatively low return on investment from wind and solar power. New alternative sources like shale gas find their energy narrative competing with the aspirations of the environmental cause. As a result, Obama’s vision is not gaining traction as a compelling narrative.

America’s next great leader will not only see the future, but will be able to articulate a clear path to get there. He/she will inspire us to join in the pursuit of the cause. We will know in our guts that the cause is right for America. We will clearly see the need to be filled. And, we will understand the benefits that will be derived from the undertaking.

Debt, deficits, entitlements, taxes and spending are not compelling narratives in and of themselves. They are mere building blocks in our quest to articulate the next great American narrative. What it will be is the great unknown.

Photo by Alfred Hermida: Watching The President.

Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell, a strategic communications and digital strategy development company headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He can be reached at dpowell@masseypowell.com.