Sunday, February 10, 2008

Where's the Big Idea?

Where's the Big Idea?

By Bob Herbert

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Berkeley, California - There is plenty for Democrats to admire in the candidacies of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

They are smart, appealing and politically gifted. High fives are in order. Their success to date represents advances in American society that many would have seen as unthinkable just a few years ago.

There's actually a lot for Americans of all political persuasions to admire this election season. This is how we change regimes in the U.S. - peacefully. I had a long conversation the other day with a writer from Kenya, Edwin Okong'o, who is visiting the University of California campus here.

He found it difficult to hide his grief as he spoke of the murderous violence that has followed a disputed election in his country. Then he managed a smile. "It's all about corruption," he said. "I am always amazed when people say they are leaving the American government because they have to make more money. In my country, you go into the government to make the money."

But for all its upside, there is something important missing from this year's presidential campaign. In an era that cries out for real change, John McCain, the presumptive G.O.P. nominee, is selling himself to voters not as the maverick he may once have been, but as a faithful follower of policies the country should be eager to discard.

With the Democrats, we seem obsessed with whether Senator Obama can get his new voters to the polls, and whether Senator Clinton can keep enough cash coming in, and whether there's an inch or an inch-and-a-half's worth of difference between their positions on health insurance and the war in Iraq.

Where, in this alleged season of change, is the big idea?

What's missing in this campaign is a bold vision of where the United States should be heading in these crucially important early years of the 21st century. In their different ways, Senators Clinton and Obama have shown themselves to be inspirational and at times even heroic figures. But neither has offered the vision that this moment in history demands.

We're excited more by who they are than by what they've promised to do.

All the candidates have detailed policy proposals - masterpieces of minutiae.

But do we have any real sense of what Senator Obama will do to stop the stagnation of the middle class and resuscitate the American dream? Do we have any reason to believe that during a Clinton presidency we'll see a transformation of the nation's decaying infrastructure? Does John McCain have the stuff to lead us from a long debilitating period of dependence on foreign oil to a new and exciting world of energy efficiency and innovation?

The essential question the candidates should be trying to answer - but that is not even being asked very often - is how to create good jobs in the 21st century. Thirty-seven million Americans are poor, and roughly 60 million others are near-poor. (These are people struggling to make it on incomes of $20,000 to $40,000 a year for a family of four.)

The middle class is hardly flourishing. In testimony before a House subcommittee last year, Harley Shaiken, a Berkeley professor who is an expert on labor and employment, remarked: "During a period of robust economic growth, record profits and the fastest sustained productivity increases since the 1950s, only a thin slice at the top of the economic heap is enjoying higher living standards."

Now the country is faced with a possible recession and the likelihood of moving further backward rather than forward on employment.

"We're building exit ramps from the middle class," said Mr. Shaiken during an interview. "But what is the path to the middle class for most Americans now? We need to figure out how to resume building entrance ramps."

The most direct route to the middle class has always been a good job. An obvious potential source of new jobs would be a broad campaign to rebuild the nation's infrastructure - its roads, bridges, schools, levees, water treatment facilities and so forth.

Another area with big job creation potential is the absolutely vital quest to develop alternative sources of energy. That effort should carry the same high national priority that was accorded the Manhattan Project during World War II. I'd even call it Manhattan II.

There are moments in history that demand not just talent in a nation's leadership, but greatness - men or women with the courage to dream bigger and the ability to convince others that those dreams can be realized.

The presidential candidates don't seem to be rising to the nation's many crucial challenges with the sense of urgency and the creative vision that is called for. Not yet, at least.

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