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What happened to the American dream?

By Jamal Simmons, Special to CNN
  • Jamal Simmons says most Americans believe attaining "American Dream" has gotten harder
  • He says President Obama needs to show people there's a path to improved economy
  • National debt, dependence on foreign oil are major concerns, he says
  • Simmons: It's time for tough talk about what needs to be done to get America moving ahead

Editor's note: Jamal Simmons, a former adviser to the Democratic National Committee and several Democratic candidates, is a principal at the Raben Group, a Washington consulting firm.

(CNN) -- Pundits and politicians alike opine that Washington has not been focused enough on jobs, and President Obama sought to expand the jobs agenda Thursday at the National Urban League in a speech on education.

The president is right to do so, but he needs to communicate with the American public in an inspirational way about how Americans can create a better future.

In the national immigration debate, the president offers a "pathway to citizenship" for those here illegally. It is time he also offered a "pathway for citizens" to reclaim the American Dream.

Americans are clearly distressed about an unemployment rate that hovers just below 10 percent, but our anxiety is not just about jobs. In a Xavier University poll, 60 percent of respondents said it has become harder to reach the American Dream than it was for their parents' generation, and two-thirds said it will be even harder for their children.

Another 58 percent believe that America is now in decline. If the greatness of America is like sand slipping through our collective fingers at the beach, voters might be angry because Washington doesn't seem too focused on stopping it.

The national anxieties are clear. Income disparity is growing, and in addition to the millions of jobs the U.S. has lost, schools are woefully under-preparing American children for global competition.

We spend too much money buying oil from too many places that cause us too much trouble, and our dependence on it is poisoning our environment.

Meanwhile, our government borrows more money from such nations as China, Saudi Arabia and Japan than seems wise. And still we wrestle with the threat of international terrorism and the cost in both precious lives and treasure of remaining in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The solutions are already on the table. For instance, we should declare an end to the foolish consideration in many states of balancing budgets by cutting education spending. Instead, we should focus more intently on classroom innovation, teacher and parent accountability and increasing math, science and foreign language learning. If there was ever a reason for a soda tax, improving educational outcomes would be it.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should be an opportunity for adopting alternative energy proposals. Democrats such as Al Gore propose that we convert electricity generation to a renewable energy grid, and Republicans such as T. Boone Pickens want to move the truck fleet to natural gas.

Politicians against putting a price on carbon should offer another strategy to free us from foreign oil and the threat of another crisis like the one we face in the Gulf today.

Concern about the national debt is rising; however, many economists believe that pulling back spending or raising taxes now would send us into another recession.

Maya MacGuineas from the Committee for a Responsible Budget sensibly believes that we should delay implementing any policy changes until the economy has recovered but still put the future changes on the books now, to reassure markets and inform the public of the changes to come, including changes to taxes, entitlements, defense and domestic spending.

Health care and the other reforms help deal with many of these problems, but the unemployment rate has not moved, and there is no coherent understanding of how these policies fit into a longer term strategy. It is as if the Democrats have been selling us oatmeal, raisins and flour without describing the cookies coming soon.

Savvy or cynical, American voters appear distrustful of more something-for-nothing deals that promise government action without acknowledgement of the costs to citizens. Instead, politicians should trust the people to rise to the occasion of the challenges we face.

If we were a sports team, this would be the moment for the tough-talking coach to talk straight about the hard work required at training camp to win. After the bank bailouts and bonuses, the nation needs to know that we are all in this together, so the millionaires will need to run just as many laps as those making scale wages.

It is time for a "pathway for citizens" to reclaim the American Dream that focuses on jobs and enlists our efforts, appeals to our creativity and competitive spirit, and inspires us with talk of victory ahead. The politicians who choose this unconventional path might find their political fortunes rise along with the nation.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jamal Simmons.