The presidential pre-lims are over. Now as the general election begins, it is time to define the stakes. What is this election about?
We know what John McCain thinks. He thinks it is about "winning" in Iraq, which he describes as sustaining our course there until at least 2013, and then keeping bases there for decades. This is McCain's passion, his purpose. The rest is at best a distraction.
What does Barack Obama think? We know he thinks the election is about change. He's spent much of the last few weeks arguing with McCain about Iraq. But for Obama, Iraq is an obstacle, not an obsession. It's a misbegotten war that drains our resources, exhausts our military, alienates our allies, emboldens our enemies, and distracts from our efforts to build a global alliance to counter the stateless terrorists who struck us on Sept. 11.
Now it is time for Senator Obama to lay out the stakes, to define what he thinks this election is about, to define what he will carry in the wagon. That begins with an understanding that few politicians will admit – this country is in deep trouble. The foundations of our economy have eroded; our alliances are weaker; our military is drained. The middle class, which is the foundation of America's democracy, is besieged. Poverty is rising.
The first priority must be to rebuild an economy that works for working people. Stop squandering resources in Iraq and start rebuilding America. Invest in conservation and renewable energy and end our dependence on foreign oil. Create a new strategy in the global economy that works for Main Street, not Wall Street — for this nation, not just for multinationals. If we don't get the economy working and insure that prosperity is widely shared, our security will continue to erode.
Second, we've got to build a basic foundation for middle class families, so that they can navigate the increasing risks and upheavals of the new economy. That begins with affordable high quality health care for all, ending the disparity that provides the best health care in the world for the wealthy and prices good care out of the reach of more and more working families. Obama's health care plan is a good start. Then we need guaranteed paid sick days, minimal paid vacations, the enforcement of labor standards, including the 40-hour week.
Third, we have got to invest in people, and in equal opportunity from the start. We need to provide every child with a world class public education – pre-Kindergarten, small classes in early grades, skilled teachers, organized after-school activities, and the guarantee that they will be able to afford the advanced education or training that they earn. America has built its prosperity by having the best-educated workers in the world. Now we must invest in its future by extending that promise to every child.
Fourth, we need to make America safe. We lose more people to guns at home than in Iraq. We need to challenge the harsh discrimination of our criminal justice system – the disparities in arrest, school discipline, juvenile sentencing, drug sentencing and the like that have created a jail-industrial complex, wasting billions warehousing non-violent offenders, while destroying the lives of much of a generation of young African American and Latino men.
Fifth, we need to revive idealism and hope. Summon young Americans to national service; they will respond.
This list could go on. It is time to define the stakes. This election isn't really about Iraq. It is about America. John McCain says our overriding challenge is to win in Iraq. That is simply wrong. Our over-riding challenge is to make America strong again from the inside out. McCain wants to rebuild Iraq; Obama should make it clear his priority is to rebuild America.
Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.