Reclaiming the Narrative

President Obama is about to speak to the largest audience he will have for a while. He’s a communicator at heart, a gifted, graceful writer and a powerful speaker. He wants to control his narrative legacy, and Tuesday night is one of the last opportunities he will have to shape his story in public before Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton steal the stage. So it’s a big speech, and he’s been winding up for it for a while, criss-crossing the country to outline his plans.

The State of the Union, as it is traditionally delivered, is a weird animal. The president has to deliver what amounts to a series of wonky one-liners: I promise X will have Y; I commit my administration to close the Z gap by next year; we will move the needle on W. The spaciousness and thematic connection that speakers hope for is inevitably fractured, because every part of the administration is anxious to see itself reflected in a key sentence it has helped to craft. Group drafting is problematic in any setting, and particularly when the guy delivering the speech is trying to bend the arc of history. There can be no jokes, or only very few. The sports references that might make that guy feel right at home won’t play on this large stage. And he will be speaking to a hostile Congress that has no desire to be called to a higher purpose.

Over the last couple of weeks, in preparation for this moment, President Obama has been building his own tower of big-picture ideas on the only territory he controls: executive action. He’s hoping that the tower will be tall enough that Americans will notice. And what he’s talking about is aimed at creating a large, prospering middle class that believes that tomorrow will be better than today.

Our greatest challenge as a country is that choices and opportunities—a better quality of life and a new kind of job—are increasingly unavailable to most Americans. Over time, even if we believe in the ideals of democracy, the steady corrosive effect of economic hopelessness makes those ideals seem hollow. Why does it matter that I have a voice in governance if I can’t get ahead? The result: democracy is undermined. The ability of authoritarian states to just get things done—build high speed rail, install fiber optic lines, create new industries, or move cities from place to place—begins to look more attractive.

Our greatest competitor for the global limelight is China. And America’s long-range comparative advantage over China is, in fact, democracy. The idea that choices, opportunities, and freedoms can be had here has drawn the best minds and the most energetic people to us. But unless the benefits of economic growth flow towards everyone—and not just into dividends and share buybacks—we will lose that advantage.

And that’s why President Obama’s focus on high speed Internet access is so important and so welcome. We’re two for two: Title II and community fiber, just in the last few months. The president is making it clear that his administration will have the legal authority to ensure that every American has world-class, inexpensive access to an open Internet—that’s the idea summed up in “Title II.” Right now, three out of four Americans who can buy access to a 25 Mbps connection have just one choice: their local cable monopoly. And that local monopoly can do whatever it wants to with the bits flowing over its lines, picking winners and losers and gradually turning Internet access and business use of the Internet into a cable TV-like system.

At the same time, 45 million Americans can’t buy that kind of connection at any price. Outside America’s cities, it’s even worse: only about half of rural Americans can get access to this generation of high-speed Internet access. With “Title II” authority, the FCC will be empowered to do something about these problems. And the president is also encouraging his administration to lower the barriers, created by 19 credulous state legislatures, that interfere with a mayor’s ability to call for better, more inexpensive Internet access over fiber optics.

The contrast between where we are now and where we were six years ago is stunning. Then, the administration didn’t want to rock the boat, and felt it needed Comcast and Verizon on its side. Regulatory authority? No chance. Community fiber networks? Not on the radar screen, and probably illegal for a city to compete with private providers—notice that the healthcare plans that became the Affordable Care Act did not include a public option.

Just last week, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the president praised the city for its “visionary” move of investing in a community network twenty years ago in order to “add another option to the market.” And then he praised the town for noticing that people needed greater capacity and upgrading its public option to a fiber network. “Basically,” he said, “You guys were like the captain in Jaws, where he said, ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat.'” He got a laugh. He got it right. We all need fiber.

Although the president’s party lost the midterms, the president himself has found his voice. He’s saying that we need to build on our progress since the 2008 recession by helping more families afford homes, helping more students attend community college without having to take on huge debt loads, and helping more people find good jobs in high-tech manufacturing. Underlying all of this is high speed Internet access. As he puts it, “So much of the prosperity that we’re striving for, so many of the jobs that we want to create, depend on our digital economy,” and we won’t get there unless everyone has world-class, open access to the Internet. Shared prosperity is the key challenge of our era, and great Internet access is the electricity that will make that prosperity possible.

On Tuesday night, the president has to speak to a truculent Congress and a clump of irritated Supreme Court justices. So he hopes to reach people outside the room. He knows that for everyone in America—other than the people who need campaign contributions to get work—Internet access is not a partisan issue. Tea Partiers need Internet access. The American free market needs reliable fiber Internet access in order to compete on the world stage. Right now the real cost of world-class Internet access is too high, the nation’s cable monopolies don’t have plans to make an upgrade to fiber, and we’re sinking as a country as a result. The president is in luck: Electricity is neither red nor blue.

The president will be talking about inclusive prosperity throughout Tuesday’s speech. A major step towards that prosperity involves investment in infrastructure—something that simultaneously requires bravery and attention to bone-crushing detail. But think of all the good things that come from investment in fiber optics: direct jobs, enhanced productivity, a foundation for long-term economic relevance, a higher quality of life, and increased prosperity. For everyone.

I’ll be talking about the president’s State of the Union online, with @katiecouric at Yahoo! Global News. Online: the perfect place to talk about the future.

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