President Obama’s Failure of Imagine re American Competitiveness

Last week when President Obama traveled to the west coast to dine with technology entrepreneurs including Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg it was announced that the CEO of Intel, Paul Otellini, was being appointed to the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness that was established in January and is chaired by GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

According to the White House “the Council will focus on finding new ways to promote growth by investing in American business to encourage hiring, to educate and train our workers to compete globally, and to attract the best jobs and businesses to the United States.”

President Obama will continue to appoint members in the weeks ahead. If his first choices are any indication the Council’s membership will be comprised mostly of business leaders. If so this would be an insufficiently narrow approach to competitiveness – and indeed a tragic failure of imagination on the part of the President.

Among the many reasons that America is not competing adequately on a global basis, another comes to light this week in our new national survey of public school teachers showing that 65% of teachers have children in their classroom who are coming to school hungry because they do not get enough to eat at home. 98% of teachers believe that breakfast is important to academic achievement.

We have much to learn from America’s most successful CEO’s and should be grateful to those willing to serve. But limiting the dialogue on competitiveness to them limits our exploration into the root causes of our economic and education challenges. Competitiveness must be understood expansively – and include all of the elements that enable future generations to compete – including the health and strength of their bodies and minds. To seek economic competitiveness without addressing childhood hunger and poverty, is like seeking military superiority without investing in the physical fitness of the troops.

So far the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness looks like many of its predecessors – and will probably produce the same limited results. Obama should act boldly to redefine competitiveness, recognizing it not as a one dimensional challenge of investing in technology and education, but instead as a three dimensional challenge of ensuring the workforce of the future is also fed, fit, healthy, and ready to learn. The membership of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness needs to include that perspective. Hopefully the President will act soon to ensure that it does.

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