Grim, yet hopeful. Constrained, yet honest. President-elect Obama's gripping recovery press conference today promised, in his words, a "clean break from a troubled past."
Let's hope so. Central to a clean break must be an emphasis on recovery for all Americans, not the just usual beneficiaries. This means a direct focus on the poor, the vulnerable and people of color who have not been able to participate for some time.
If we invest this money differently, this package can be the "new and hopeful beginning for America" that Obama called for.
Foremost, we need to invest in the American people. Job training and retraining programs in community colleges are among the greatest ways to reconfigure the nation's workforce and give low-income people a path to prosperity. A whole new skill-set is required to compete in this modern economy. We have to get the American people ready. Safeguarding the funding for state-level education, health and public safety programs remain funded is also key to ensuring all people are kept safe through this crisis.
Not much will change in the long-run if this stimulus is put together like every other recent Washington infrastructure and spending bill - laden with heavy on the highways and light on green public transit and other projects that actually help working families. We would still have a deeply inequitable America competing in the 21st Century global economy with a 20th Century infrastructure.
"Infrastructure" must be about more than just roads and bridges. Investing in public transit would do more to connect millions of people to economic opportunity than any eight-lane highway in the exurbs ever could. Plus, public transit projects produce on average 19 percent more jobs per dollar spent than highway construction. These projects create good-paying jobs in the short-term and provide a long-term (and green) connection to regional job centers.
Nor is transportation the only place the recovery package money should be spent. Our national infrastructure priorities must also include retrofitting schools to be more environmentally friendly and encouraging fresh food stores in long-forgotten communities. With these investments, we could dramatically improve the health of our kids and beat back the scourge of childhood obesity.
Obama began to shine a light on these "non-traditional" infrastructure projects in his discussion of spreading broadband to rural communities so businesses there could compete against any in the world. That is exciting - and equally true when it comes to low-income, urban communities. Dramatically expanding broadband access could unleash a wave of innovation and entrepreneurialism from corners of America who have long been disconnected from the national economy.
Obama's press conference today was a startling - and exciting - example of a president being truthful about our challenges, yet hopeful about our future. Tackling these challenges head-on will require more than just hope, though. It will require a clean break