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The powerful politics of optimism

America's most successful political leaders have always shared a key ingredient—an optimistic vision for our country's future.

Our nation's most respected presidents have been those who offered hope to millions of Americans at times when they had little to none. From FDR whose New Deal vision brought Americans out of the Great Depression and into a new age of vitality, to Ronald Reagan whose 'Morningin America' propelled the country forward following a decade of economic stagnation, candidates can raise the national conversation to what is possible and the heights we can reach as a people.

We now face the greatest time of change in our economic life since the Industrial Revolution. Across the country, Americans are discouraged by stagnant incomes, and uncertainty about their future as the forces of globalization and technology continue to pummel everything familiar to them. Driving America forward—especially during times of economic change is never an easy job—but our best leaders have always leveraged our enormous assets as a country with the power of optimism and hope to lay out a path for a better future. Today, we need that more than we have in decades.

American flag and white fence
Donovan Reese Photography | Getty Images

There are so many reasons to be optimistic today. America's modern economic shift is being thrust forward by a remarkable wave of technological innovation. Yes, the wave is disrupting what we know, but it also can provide the promise of a successful path forward.

Computer-assisted design and fabrication are reshaping manufacturing. Software is collapsing the borders between countries and enabling us to reach markets all over the world without leaving home. Advances in big data and digital delivery platforms are creating more open, flexible systems and structures where everyone, regardless of resources, can reach the information they need.

Taken together, these changes and others carry with them extraordinary economic potential. High-skill, high-value jobs are paving new roads to success. Technology is connecting American businesses with consumers around the world. Innovative programs that teach workers new skills are creating wells of opportunity in cities and towns across the country.

But to move forward and share these potential benefits with all Americans, we need to develop a tangible and workable plan for the digital age. From training to credentialing so Americans can thrive in the jobs of tomorrow, to connecting employers to skilled workers, to equipping small businesses to grow, we need a vision forward.

Innovative national policies are needed more than they have been in decades. Yet the current presidential debate is about Industrial Age ideas. This will certainly be the last campaign where that will be true, but we can't afford to wait for the next.

How fundamental are reform policies we need from our presidential candidates? Consider the last time we confronted change on this scale. In the 19th century, the United States experienced a similar period of economic upheaval during which the country not only survived, but thrived. As manufacturing replaced cottage industries and craftsmanship, the jobs moved from rural to urban areas and laborers migrated from farms to factories. Employers needed workers who could operate advanced machines, harness the power of steel and oil, and construct railroads and skyscrapers.

Electrification, the telephone, the automobile and the assembly line completely upended the nature of work, but they also ushered in a new era of efficiency, productivity, and enhanced lifestyles. We invented the public high school, and mass consumer markets. Not only did our country emerge stronger, but we became a global economic power.

Yes, it is true that America today is undergoing a massive economic transformation, and change is not without disruption. Technological advances are making new demands on employers and employees alike. In manufacturing, for example, to operate and repair machines on a shop floor, a worker today needs a strong grasp of physics, advanced math, and computer skills.

Soon nearly every job in every field will require competency in 21st century skills. To achieve this we need a 21st Century labor market that informs people of the skills needed and the trainers what to teach. Lifelong learning will be the norm. Do our candidates see this possibility?

Soon the hundreds of millions—and growing—middle class consumers around the world will demand health care, education, and services their countries are not equipped to provide. Our vibrant service sector can meet these needs over the Internet. Do our candidates see this possibility?

Optimism can lead to action. So in this election, our focus must be on the concrete steps we will take to prepare America for a brighter, more prosperous future.

Now is the time for our candidates to lead a national conversation worthy of our nation's unrivaled spirit.

Zoë Baird is the CEO and President of the Markle Foundation. She leads Rework America and wrote the preface to the members' collective book, America's Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age. Follower her on Twitter @ZoeBairdMarkle