'There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there's the United States of America."
With these words at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama electrified a divided country, launching a victorious Senate campaign, and four years later, a triumphant presidential campaign.
He took office amid the worst conditions facing any incoming president since Franklin D. Roosevelt -- a great recession, two wars, financial free-fall. In his first year he staved off depression, rescued the banks and labored to pass some health-care reform.
But the test of whether this is truly a United States of America still awaits. If we are one America, then we must act together to help those hit the hardest by the economic calamities. The economists say the recovery has started, but in urban and rural America, things are getting worse. The industrial Midwest is still reeling, and many of the jobs aren't coming back. California, Florida and Nevada are still staggered by the collapse in housing values -- and now brutal cuts are coming from state and local budgets.
With the banks saved and massive job loss staunched, many economists -- including some in the White House -- now assume the recovery will take its course, and employment is a "lagging indicator." So it's time to focus on deficit reduction and closing down the emergency Federal Reserve programs that gave banks a lifeline. And after the big fight on health care, Congress is looking to pass some kind of financial reform, a token "jobs" program, and get out of town to campaign for re-election.
But take one look at Detroit -- or at Cleveland or South Chicago. Some of Detroit's -- and the Midwest's -- problems are self-generated. But many come from the decadelong decline of manufacturing that culminated in the collapse of the auto industry.
Unemployment among the young is at its highest levels since the government began keeping track after World War II. For low-income black teenagers, according to the New York Times, only 4 in 100 found jobs this fall.
If we are truly one America, we cannot abandon these kids to idleness, crime, drugs and poverty. We cannot abandon industrial cities in despair. We cannot allow millions of Americans to lose their homes while saving the predatory lenders that put many of them in the fix they are in.
This administration and the Congress must step up to this challenge. We need a bold new initiative to rebuild America. Across the country, our basic infrastructure is in dire need of repair and renewal. Leaking sewer systems expose millions to befouled water dangerous to their health. Outmoded or absent mass transit clogs streets, wastes hours in gridlock and exacts a cruel tax on our lives as well as our economy. An outmoded energy system leaves us ever more dependent on foreign oil, while we fail to lead the new green industrial revolution that will generate the growth markets of the future.
President Obama called us to build our economy on a new foundation -- investing in infrastructure, in new energy, in education and training. We now need a policy to fit the vision. Establish a national infrastructure bank, providing guarantees for pension funds, to invest in building the new green infrastructure of the 21st century and put people to work. Invest in children, ensuring that they have the best education available in the world, from pre-K to affordable college, no matter where they are born.
And then target those investments on the areas most in need -- on our cities in despair, our depressed rural areas. Provide direct public service jobs so young people can get the discipline, skills and hope that come from work.
If this is one America, it is not enough to rescue Wall Street and abandon Detroit. It is not acceptable to write off our cities or our rural areas as lost. Surely, if we can plan to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, we can plan to rebuild Detroit and South Chicago.
A United States of America -- now is the time to prove it.