America needs to dream again.
Neil Armstrong lived down the street from me on Drake Road in Cincinnati, Ohio and was a constant reminder of a simple, powerful idea that worked. Our leaders inspired the American people to rally around an audacious goal and Americans organized to meet it. In that case, it was President Kennedy who set the moonshot goal (having no idea at the time how to pull it off) and 400,000 engineers and innovators collaborated to put two men on the moon and bring them safely back to earth within a decade.
Where is that spirit today?
Our national leaders should spend more time highlighting our toughest challenges and summoning the energy and ingenuity of the American people to address them with concrete goals and accountability for progress over time.
Some of this work has been happening. After decades of progress in the 20th century, the high school dropout challenge lost a third of our nation’s students every year for 30 years from 1970 to 2000. These aren’t just numbers, but people who disproportionately were unemployed, disconnected from community life, and even in prison. Finally, a clear goal was set, a plan was generated to meet it, and a sustained effort witnessed 3.5 million more students graduating rather than dropping out as rates increased from 71 percent in 2001 to more than 84 percent by 2017.
The same can be said of malaria. With presidential leadership and public and private will, more than 7 million lives have been saved since 2001 as leaders and grassroots efforts worked in tandem to try to end this fully preventable and treatable disease. President George W. Bush and private sector leaders such as Ray Chambers and Bill Gates set clear goals and mobilized the world to work to meet them.
Americans want to be inspired and as Bill Buckley reminded us — everyone at some level wants to be a knight.
Instead of the toxic politics of division and frankly irrelevance, what if our leaders defined some clear goals that the country could work to meet and announced they would be the focus of a decadal challenge? Instead of the daily twitter wars, the country’s attention could be focused on a new era of tackling America’s own version of Sustainable Development Goals.
The list of issues that could tap our talents would inspire — to end child hunger and homelessness as Billy Shore and Barbara Duffield want to do; to address the college dropout crisis as the country is doing in high school; to reforest America, create marine reserves to protect 30 percent of the ocean, and address climate change as Sylvia Earle and E. O. Wilson want to do; to inspire more “transformers” or “weavers” in local communities that work across difference to solve public challenges as Tim Shriver and David Brooks envision; and to follow the call of four-star General Stan McChrystal, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to create a rite of passage for young people as they come of age to perform a year of national service to heal our country’s divisions.
History shows that Americans always rise to the occasion when they are called upon to serve causes greater than themselves. Our national attention is wrongly focused on politicians, when America’s real strength is in its leaders in communities and across civil society. Our politicians should recognize this fact and be true leaders by tapping the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people to get this country moving again.
John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic, former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush, and former Member of the White House Council for Community Solutions under President Barack Obama.