Enough talk about jobs. Where’s the action?

Thirty months after taking office, President Obama says he has turned his focus to America’s unemployed and job creation. Again.

As Standard & Poor’s lowered the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+ in an historic move last Friday, the president called jobs his “singular focus.” In December 2010, he announced a “pivot and focus” on jobs. The previous year he called it “a sustained and relentless focus.” Financial markets have voted with their feet, as investors have reduced equity values by more than 11 percent in the past week.

And yet every time there’s talk about rebuilding the nation’s jobs-machine, elected officials get pulled off course by distractions like partisan showdowns over the budget and debt ceiling; overhauling the health-insurance system; wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; the Gulf oil spill; and the Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster. Given the country’s deep fiscal troubles, our government leaders’ inability to maintain focus on such a fundamentally important issue as job creation is particularly worrying. If concerted actions aren’t taken immediately, America may lapse into Japanese-style malaise.

Right now, the United States has its lowest percentage of citizens in modern times – less than 55 percent – working in full-time jobs. The 25 million workers (16.2 percent) unable to find full-time work and the hundreds of thousands dropping out of the workforce every month must wonder if the president and congressional leaders are serious about the real issues the country faces: no growth and no jobs.

Want to know how to rebuild the U.S. economy and generate jobs? Ask the CEOs who create them. In recent weeks I have had conversations about this subject with dozens of business leaders. They believe the debates in Washington that virtually shut down the government in April and again this summer are largely irrelevant to what’s required for America to regain its economic might. As politicians debate how to divvy up a shrinking pie (Democrats want the wealthy to support the economically less fortunate, and Republicans want people to keep the money they have earned), CEOs want to focus on how to expand the pie for all stakeholders: their customers, employees, shareholders and society-at-large.

If growth opportunities and the U.S. business climate are attractive, they prefer to invest here, but today that’s hardly the case. With domestic growth approaching zero and the regulatory, tax and political climate getting worse, CEOs are investing in rapidly growing emerging markets in Asia, Latin America and Middle East – and jobs follow markets. That’s not a philosophical view. It’s purely pragmatic.

Posting on the Washington Post on August 9, 2011 – This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on unemployment and restarting America’s jobs engine — with opinion pieces by former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill, Harvard Business School professor and author Bill George, leadership expert Katherine Tyler Scott,Wharton School professor Michael Useem, and Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Amy M. Wilkinson.