Moving America Forward

Left to right: David Brody, Maria Teresa Kumar, Dana Milbank, Arianna Huffington, Tavis Smiley, Maria Bartiromo. Dr. Cornell West, David Frum and John S. Chen.
January 17, 2011

PBS’s Tavis Smiley hosts panel discussion at GW on the future of the U.S.

By Jennifer Eder

Investing in the middle class. Reforming the nation’s education system. And getting Americans reenergized and reengaged.

These were just some of the recommendations given by eight panelists during a three-hour discussion with PBS host Tavis Smiley on how America can improve its future at the George Washington University on Jan. 13. During the forum the panelists discussed challenges facing the U.S. including energy independence, the economy, the divided government, education and health care reform.

Panelists included Cornel West, Princeton University professor and author; David Frum, speechwriter for President George W. Bush and founder of FrumForum; John S. Chen, chairman of Committee of 100 and Sybase Inc.; Maria Bartiromo, anchor of CNBC’s Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo; Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post; Dana Milbank, political columnist for The Washington Post; David Brody, CBN News White House correspondent and Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director and co-founder of Voto Latino.

At the core of the discussion was the pressing question: How can America return to greatness?

Mr. Smiley referred to a recent Rasmussen Report showing that nearly half of all Americans believe the country’s best days are behind it.

“We have reached a point where the rest of the world has caught up,” said Mr. Milbank. “America will no longer dominate the way it once did economically and militarily.”

Ms. Huffington, who recently wrote the book Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream, spoke about how the U.S. is losing the American dream because the middle class is facing so many challenges.

“The middle class is at the heart of any first world country,” said Ms. Huffington. “If we lose our middle class, as we’re in danger of doing now, we will become Third World America. The middle class is now the new poor.”

Ms. Huffington, however, said she is ultimately optimistic about whether the U.S. can return to greatness. Ms. Bartiromo agreed.

“I think that America is the greatest country in the world. I think we were great, and we are falling a bit now for sure. But we will get back to greatness again,” Ms. Bartiromo said.

But Mr. West disagreed, arguing that a nation’s greatness is measured by how the country’s poor are fairing, and therefore the U.S. has a long way to go before it can be described as “great.”

“How many poor people, how many unemployed people, how many poor children, how many uneducated people do there have to be before you can call into question the greatness of the nation?” Mr. West asked.

The discussion, which was broadcasted live on C-SPAN, will be rebroadcasted on PBS’s Tavis Smiley, a weeknight talk show on Jan. 18, 19 and 20. The conversation will also be aired on Public Radio International’s The Tavis Smiley Show, a weekly news and opinion program, and Smiley & West, a weekly current affairs and political program.

Two of the main topics of conversation revolved around unemployment and education.

Ms. Huffington argued that the federal government spent too much time bailing out Wall Street and not enough time creating jobs.

“When Wall Street was in danger, there was an unbelievable sense of urgency, and everyone came together. The government saved Wall Street, and rightfully so. But there was never the same sense of urgency about jobs or foreclosures,” said Ms. Huffington. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have bailed out Wall Street. I’m saying they should have bailed out Wall Street with strings attached.”

Ms. Huffington went on to criticize President Barack Obama for not following through with his promise to prioritize job creation.

“The White House has not woken up to the urgency,” she said.

In addition to lowering the unemployment rate, the U.S. must vastly improve its education system, said Ms. Bartiromo.

“When you look at the differences in education in this country versus the rest of the world, we are failing,” she said. “In the U.S. our kids go to school five days a week about seven hours a day. In China, they are going to school six days a week and 10 hours a day.”

Mr. Chen said China has caught on because they are “hungrier” than the U.S.

“But it’s not just China that’s catching up. It’s everyone,” he said.

Ms. Bartiromo criticized U.S. politicians for having such a short-term mentality instead of thinking globally and into the future.

“Decisions are being made based on if they’ll get reelected in two or four years,” Ms. Bartiromo said. “But the Chinese are thinking about the next 100 years, not the next two years.”

The 2012 election will likely be even more competitive than 2008’s was, and a larger percentage of the population is expected to vote, said Mr. Frum.

And the Tea Party will be especially competitive, said Mr. Brody.

“What you saw politically in 2010 was just Act One. Act Two is coming in 2012. These folks are serious. The Tea Party went to work on the 2012 campaign the day after the 2010 election,” said Mr. Brody.

Although Mr. Smiley said he doesn’t agree with the Tea Party’s agenda, he commended their efforts and especially their engagement, arguing that black voters – President Obama’s most loyal constituency – failed to do that in the 2010 election.

“The enthusiasm and euphoria about Barack Obama two years ago made blacks go vote who had never voted before in their lives to make sure we elected Barack Obama. And for the 2010 election, Barack Obama did every black radio show begging black folk in this country to turn out to vote for him in the midterm elections. And what happened? One in four black people turned out in the midterm elections,” said Mr. Smiley.

While the challenges the country faces are large, Mr. Milbank doesn’t think they’re insurmountable.

“If we were to not lament our problems but begin by saying, ‘what is the solution we are going to pursue,’ we would find that the solutions are available. They’re embedded in the problems and are not beyond our capacity,” said Mr. Frum.

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