Are we winning yet?
Americans need their leaders to define success with a clear storyline.
This morning’s news that America’s economy continues add jobs as it bounces backs is good news. Despite some strong headwinds from price increases and uncertainty linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine, unemployment in America hovers near 50-year lows and there are many signs that things are looking brighter in America than they have been for years.
But a recent NBC News poll (conducted in mid-March) found Americans to be in a very grumpy mood, with 71 percent saying that the nation is on the wrong track versus only 22 percent who say things are heading in the right direction. President Joe Biden’s approval rating remains stuck near all-time lows for his presidency at 40 percent.
A big part of this prickly zeitgeist is linked to concerns about inflation and instability in the world – Americans rank the cost of living, jobs and the economy, and the Ukraine war as their top concerns. Even if things are objectively looking much better than they have been for a long while – America has recovered more than 20 million of the jobs lost during the pandemic and is on pace to create even more jobs in the months ahead – people are worried about where the country is headed.
But another part of the problem is that America doesn’t have leaders telling them what a win looks like in key aspects of their lives, from the economy at home to the war in Ukraine.
Case in point: consider this made-for-the-Beltway kerfuffle last week when President Biden spoke his mind in a speech in Poland: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Biden’s staffers tried to walk back his comments, and America’s pundit industrial complex kicked into high gear, seizing yet another Monty Python-like “blessed are the cheesemakers” moment to parse Biden’s words.
Biden stood by his own words and made no apologies, but the whole kerfuffle raised a broader issue with Biden and nearly all of America’s political leaders these days: few leaders take the time to clearly define what victory or success looks like, and even fewer tell a compelling story to Americans about what we’ve achieved and how we can put more points on the board.
To put it in sports terms, we’re all commenting on the individual plays of the game but no one’s really keeping score. Most importantly, no one is really making a clear case of what a win looks like.
The lack of a clear story outlining the narrative arc for Americans – telling them where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we are heading – isn’t the sole reason why people are pessimistic. But it’s a key ingredient that’s missing in America today.
In at least three key areas, Biden and other leaders should seek to more clearly define what a win looks like for America.
1. America’s economic revival. America’s economy is roaring back to life and bouncing back from the self-induced shutdown of the pandemic. Yes, some major inequalities still exist, and far too many people are feeling the direct effect of price increase. But putting the blame on oil companies is not likely to reassure many Americans – a better approach would be to talk about how we’re going to invest even more in America to compete in the world as we take measures to straighten out supply chains and let the Federal Reserve do what’s needed to fight inflation. Do more to tout popular measures like last year’s major infrastructure bill, and chart out a more practical path to win broader support for additional investments in education and the social safety net. Paint a picture of what a new American economy connected to the world can do to make things even better than they already are.
2. America’s security. Most Americans want to hear how their leaders are working together to keep them safe from threats like Russia, terrorism, cyberthreats and climate change. Step away from the noise of the hyper-partisan debates about U.S. foreign policy these days, and there is a remarkable degree of public support for a steadier U.S. and more balanced engagement in the world. This means that Biden and other leaders should do more to paint the picture of what victory looks like against Russia in the Ukraine war and more broadly, but also to talk about how America is going to compete with China and address other foreign policy and security concerns like immigration. A more practical plan on crime reduction for America is an important part of the security issue in the minds of many Americans.
3. An inclusive patriotism for America. The third ingredient is as important as the first – America’s leaders need to remind its people that we’re all in this together and we’re stronger when we work together to solve problems and seize opportunities. President Biden did this at the start of his presidency – his inaugural address last year was a heartfelt call for unity that outlined a vision for a new economic foundation and a social contract, along with a new type of internationalism and domestic politics. But Biden’s recent speeches to the country, including his State of the Union address last month, has lacked that broader vision of America and what victory and success looks like ahead.
Americans need their leaders to tell them how they are making them safe and prosperous, and they should do it in a way that inspires and connects them to this bigger idea of America.
America is the best country in the world.
Let's keep it that way - let’s go for more wins.