12/18/2014 08:14 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

The Future of the Democratic Party

lhfgraphics via Getty Images

For generations, America's middle class has been the key to our nation's promise and potential. As the Democratic Party debates the most effective path toward restoring our prosperity, our priorities must center on the source of the struggles for those striving for and struggling to remain part of today's middle class.

While it's important to focus on income inequality and economic fairness, we must keep in mind that those issues represent symptoms of the larger challenges we face. As our debates become more heated, we should stop to consider whether we as a party are focusing our efforts as fully as we can on communicating our commitment to a stronger middle class, while putting in place new policies that support those hardworking families and create opportunity for those working to join them.

That means solutions that end a decades-long stagnation that has limited incomes and economic mobility. We need to prepare our people and our businesses to prosper in a world where businesses have more choices than ever before about where to hire and where computers are increasingly doing the work of laborers -- where good-paying jobs require highly skilled workers, and where it will be essential for businesses to have access to those workers and the tools to best serve customers around the world.

It must start with better preparing our people to succeed.

Building a stronger middle class means realizing that a high school diploma is no longer enough for the vast majority of good jobs. We can create programs that allow students to obtain professional credentials in fields like manufacturing before they leave high school, as we have started to do in Delaware. And we can use our community colleges to better identify business needs and the programs that best address them, like the effort by Delaware Tech to expand its aviation airframe and powerplant program.

For rapidly changing industries, non-traditional training efforts can transform more quickly than traditional degree programs. In IT, for example, we can offer more responsive training for students and under- or unemployed workers by supporting "coding schools" that allow workers, in a matter of months rather than years, to gain the skills for specific jobs in high demand.

Whether they are preparing for college or one of these different forms of post-secondary education, all of our youth will need an educational foundation that prepares them for the increasing competitiveness of the professional world. That means raising standards for our students throughout the K-12 system to ensure they are prepared for their next steps when they graduate, and increasing access to more rigorous coursework through Advanced Placement classes and dual enrollment programs. We must also address the financial and other obstacles that prevent low- and middle-income students from pursuing the best possible post-secondary education for them.

A healthy middle class also means emphasizing that people working hard for American companies should be able to make sure that the goods and services they provide can be purchased by consumers around the world. We must ensure our small businesses community has access to these customers and the support to compete in the global marketplace. Furthermore, we can help entrepreneurs turn great ideas into products and services that improve the quality of people's lives by making it cost-effective for them to invest in research and innovation.

To make investments in these efforts and others that are vital for our middle class -- from infrastructure improvements to clean energy -- our party's agenda must also address key areas of ballooning and unsustainable expenses that aren't producing acceptable results. Patients need a health care system that prioritizes steps to prevent expensive procedures, while rewarding providers for quality rather than quantity of care.

Our criminal justice system also requires reform, recognizing that those who have made mistakes and paid their debt to society should have a chance to get back on their feet. Ex-offenders should have the opportunity to transition successfully, seek employment, and contribute to society. And, too often, we simply throw drug users in prison when, for many of these individuals, receiving treatment can mean the chance to live productively without threatening their communities. In addition to making us safer, these efforts would save taxpayers money on prison costs.

In the coming years, our country will face hard choices about how we invest our time and resources. Progress in our two-party system will mean working together on issues ranging from our tax code to how we pay for a modern transportation network. In the midst of tackling those challenges, Democrats must prioritize the fundamentals to building strong communities and a strong country. That means supporting the middle class and those striving to join it.

In doing so, we will maximize our success at the polls and, more significantly, help solve the challenges of a new economy that would otherwise leave many of our people behind.