07/12/2012 06:07 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

The Question Project: What Obama and Romney Should Tell Us About Job Creation

It's hard to put a good face on the June jobs report. Unfortunately, 80,000 new jobs a month isn't even enough to keep up with population growth and new people coming into the labor market. Even if we were gaining jobs at three times that rate, we wouldn't replace the 8 million jobs lost in the Great Recession for more than six years, according to the jobs calculator developed by the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project.

Everyone expects the next president to do something about this. But so far the candidates aren't inspiring a lot of confidence. So we're introducing "The Question Project," a series of posts dedicated to the proposition that if we as voters don't start asking both presidential candidates some tougher, more probing questions about their plans for the economy and the country, we're not going to get the solutions we need.

We were inspired in this effort by a group we just discovered, The Right Question Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana are exploring the role question-asking plays in helping students develop powerful critical thinking skills. Their argument is that "a question can become a sophisticated and potent tool to expand minds, inspire new ideas, and give us surprising power at moments when we might not believe we have any." Right now, their work focuses on teaching, but they believe questions are crucial in politics too. "It's essential to democracy," Rothstein points out. "You want citizens to be able to ask good questions."

You can select a candidate in a dozen different ways: by their party, looks, commercials, endorsements or just as an expression of naked self-interest. But only questions allow us to sort out what candidates think about the things that matter most to us as voters and individuals. Only questions force the candidates to justify themselves to us as custodians of the American dream.

So let's stipulate that in this fall's election, jobs will be issue number one. What questions should voters ask the candidates? We have a few modest suggestions, but be forewarned. We're leaving all questions on Bain Capital and Solyndra to the candidates and their various hangers-on -- just go at it, guys, and get it out of your system. And we'll also be steering clear of questions about the candidates' wives, ministers, churches, childhoods, vacations, and birth certificates. Sad to say, others seem to have those amply covered. We're proposing questions that we believe really matter to most voters and where the answers will likely determine the country's future. You'll surely have your own ideas, and we encourage you to post them in the comments section.

So here goes:

  • Governor Romney, cutting tax rates is a centerpiece of your economic plan. But the United States has had historically low tax rates for nearly a decade, and during that period, we lost about as many jobs as we added. Why do you think additional tax cuts will help now? Exactly how would this idea work?
  • President Obama, you admit there's more work to do on jobs, and you've suggested some ideas, but nearly all of them depend on Congress going along with you -- not your strong suit over the past two years. Can you give us a list of specific ideas you think you could actually bring off, even if you're still facing tough opposition from the Republicans?
  • Presidents are expected to develop extensive contingency plans to protect the country from national security threats from abroad. But what are your contingency plans to protect the U.S. economy if there's a major economic upheaval in Europe or elsewhere? If the world economy begins sliding into another recession, how will you respond?
  • On jobs, digging out of the Great Recession is just the first step. Powerful, historic developments in technology and globalization means more jobs can be done by anyone, anywhere, as long as the employee has the skills. The danger used to be that lower-skilled jobs would move abroad, but now, it's jobs in engineering, accounting, product design and other skilled areas as well. This trend is accelerating and is probably unstoppable. How will you respond? What policies will you pursue to make sure we have enough good jobs here?
  • The longer someone is out of work, the harder it is for them to get back into the workforce. And statistics show we've got the highest proportion of long-term unemployed people since the 1930s. A robust recovery would help, but we can't assume it will provide jobs for these people, many of whom have outdated skills. How, specifically, would you help the long-term unemployed?
  • For most Americans, there are two jobs issues -- one is whether you have a job and the other is whether that job pays enough for you to live decently. Americans' incomes have stagnated over the last decade. We've listened to your ideas about creating jobs. What are your ideas for creating better-paying ones?

So, Governor Romney and President Obama, we'd like to hear your answers -- with no slogans allowed. In our view, American voters deserve at least this much. And it might be a good idea to put some questions like these to candidates for Congress and the governorships and mayoralties around the nation.

Our point is that Americans are fearful about the country's economic trajectory and deeply worried about whether there will be enough good jobs to sustain their families and their futures. Unfortunately, the electioneering we've seen so far is probably more frustrating and confusing to most voters than it is enlightening.

There's still time, though, to have a good debate about the substance. And if you have some more good questions in mind, let us know. It's time to get a honorable discussion started.