Richard C. Harwood: To Change Washington, Obama Must Turn to Main Street – Part II

Earlier this week, I wrote about how Obama must make ‘strange bedfellows’ in order to put the country on a new path. In the second of my three recommendations for Obama’s second term, I examine how communities need to be the leaders, not Obama.

Recommendation #2: Break gridlock through small, local actions

Washington leaders and pundits like to talk about grand bargains and historic legislation, and one can only wish for progress to be made on the big issues confronting us. Still, if recent political battles are any example, future legislative achievements will come at a steep cost as leaders insist on more public name-calling and small-minded politicking. This is no path to renewed hope in the country.

If President Obama wants to help break the nation’s gridlock and restore people’s belief that we can get things done together, signs of change must come from taking a different path. This one starts in our local communities, not the nation’s capital — with small, local actions driven by a clear national purpose.

Americans urgently want to come together in their communities, but not simply for an occasional hour of feel-good volunteering. They yearn to come out of their homes, roll up their sleeves and work, with others, to tackle real challenges. As importantly, they want to set the goals of their own efforts and feel the personal responsibility for producing tangible results that make a difference in others’ lives. Small, local actions not only remind people that acts of leadership are possible, they also demonstrate what can be achieved to other communities, other individuals, and our leaders. In a word, they are believable.

In a conversation I once led in Detroit, one woman said that Americans want to be able to say “Made in America” with pride again. We were in the Motor City, but she said she wasn’t talking about making cars, but about making a difference, with her neighbors, for the good of Detroit and other communities.

We can’t keep waiting for hurricanes or tragic crimes to spark our ability to unite. There is any number of issues around which Americans would mobilize their talents and energies locally — beginning perhaps with rebuilding storm-damaged communities or making our towns safe from violence or supporting returning veterans. And there are already successful efforts on these and other issues around the country to build upon.

The president must help to spark such action nationwide. But this can’t be the typical “national initiative” run out of the White House, designed by the White House, to benefit the White House. New logos and letterhead won’t be needed, nor a cute jingle.

The president can lead by weaving these local efforts into a common national endeavor, one that ties together the work of the nation with chances for people to contribute locally where they can see the results. This is homegrown change with national impact, driven by local and national organizations, funded by foundations, businesses and various groups and individuals.

To succeed the president will need to be crystal clear about his role. It is not to direct, coordinate, or turn on his Washington, D.C.-driven political arm Obama for America. It is help rally people, marshal resources, shine a spotlight, visit communities, share stories — in short, to be a special kind of catalyst for people to rebuild their own faith that the nation can transcend its political differences and actually make something, together.

No one should be under any illusion that this approach will “solve” all the tough challenges now facing the nation. That’s not its purpose. Rather, it is to demonstrate anew what is possible and rebuild the essential conditions necessary to take larger actions down the road, more ambitious changes that will require true common purpose and durable political will — built on trust, meaningful relationships, and public confidence.

If we fail to go down this road, we can expect more endless debates, gridlock, and cynicism. More false promises. More grandiose pledges for progress. That path is well known, and it is one of lost opportunity and hope.

Americans yearn to harness their own power, and to use that power to help create a new path. Restoring people’s belief will come from common enterprise, by common people.

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