Rediscovering The Obama Narrative

The project of the next president is figuring out how do you create bottom-up economic growth, as opposed to the trickle-down economic growth that George Bush has been so enamored with” (Candidate Barack Obama, 2/2/08)

With all the recent angst in Washington DC about the lost Obama presidency now giving way to a fresh look after health care, one question keeps coming to mind:  

“If an Obama governing narrative fell inside the Beltway, or landed on 24/7 cable, would anyone really hear it?  One wonders.

This is not to give Team Obama an A-plus across the board on communications or implementation, but the notion that the President doesn’t have a core philosophy is simply ridiculous.   The problem is Obama’s governing narrative does not fit neatly into traditional boxes.  

Obamaism at its core is largely about bottom-up change rather than top-down dictates.  The reason: federal silo’ed programs and one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work well anymore.  The key to building new, innovation-driven programs, especially to turn around our economy, is finding, nurturing and scaling the best private and public outcomes at the point of effective delivery – in regions and communities.   

Growth, job creation and shared prosperity lies in creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and small companies to find financing, university researchers to find private collaborators and suppliers to find customers in virtual or real networks outside the DC Beltway.   That’s where we netted 40 million new jobs from 1980-2005, from young companies less than 5 years old.

Hence the unheralded Obama focus on bottom-up investments in US long-term competitiveness in energy and Electricity 2.0, broadband infrastructure and education reform to fertilize our future.

Hence the narrative disconnect between a Washington culture rooted in the mental confinement of Crossfire and its cable progeny, and an Obama governing strategy rooted in local geographies where post-partisan change actually is happening all the time.  

Now has the President gotten bogged down at times in allowing Congress to be seen as the main venue and benchmark for measuring “change.”  Yes. 

But let’s also give the Administration its due for trying to seed innovation that isn’t sexy enough (yet) to make a David Brooks column.  One thinks of the regional innovation work emanating from the Economic Development Administration and to catalyze new businesses and markets; the national competition to create a new collaborative center on energy efficiency and the built environment; and even little known parts of the health care bill like the new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation which is pure bottom-up innovation, asking communities rather than drug companies to take the lead in developing cost-saving health innovation.  One should like that bet.

That said, the other half of the narrative is about the rest of us stepping up our game.   Too many of us have reverted to looking for magical answers at an imaginary “Window A” in the White House, or be surprised that Congress can’t pass a perfect bill. 

We need to be moving without the ball; not standing around and complaining with the pundits.  This is the path forward.  

We can start to boost up the bottom-up Obama economic narrative by lifting up those “ones we have been waiting for” -- the small business owners, the Governors, the school principals, and other community leaders who are busy pouring the wet cement on a new American foundation, beyond Pennsylvania Avenue.

How else?   Some communities and business leaders are moving forward on their own to create public-private job “war rooms” to accelerate the recovery, break down old silos and lift up a few signature job creation stories this summer to help people better "see" the recovery.  

Following the President’s lead, an expanding network of innovation-minded Democrats are advancing ideas to create a new, bottom-up pipeline for economic development and help America leapfrog past obsolete, “big guvment” programs, and instead launch "Little TVAs" to promote innovative, public-private pilots.  Former Governor Mark Warner, for example, is exploring new mechanisms to catalyze “cluster-driven” economics and industry creation, and the in-sourcing of smart manufacturing that focuses on local chain and workforce programming that effectively builds on local business strengths.    

NDN’s new Electricity 2.0 paper outlines a range of other, low-cost policy changes designed to unlock the economic potential of modernizing America’s decidedly inefficient electricity system --  as big a chunk of US GNP as health care.  Most of the big changes here can’t come from Washington, but from new innovative blueprints to creatively engage consumers, regulators and utilities.  

Another high-impact, bottom-up investment idea still below the radar?   To leverage billions in public & union pension funds assets that are now under-invested in local innovation, we could let local public and private stakeholders choose the economic development projects they want – with best-in-class federal criteria and oversight through local clean and green banks.  Perhaps paired with already proposed nuclear financing by the President, this would be low-cost, local control in the best tradition of Ronald Reagan and Grover Norquist.    

In the end, as President Obama understands, our recovery is tentative, and we need more creative thinking to jumpstart small business growth, bottom up jobs and accelerate private-led innovation.   We just need to get busy communicating the new lens which puts regional leaders, not the pundits, at the center of the conversation defining what we can do. 

Cross posted at the Huffington Post.