(CNN) We are still in the early stages, but the 2016 presidential race is full of fascinating personalities with intriguing stories.
- Will iconoclastic senators such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz catch fire and bring sweeping change to the Republican Party?
- Will Jeb Bush be able to shake off the brand damage from his brother's presidency?
- Will Hillary Clinton, formidable after so many years in the spotlight, survive the coming onslaught and break that glass ceiling?
But there is an even more important question: Will 2016 be about big personalities -- or big proposals for change?
The scary truth is that the problems we face as a nation are so monumental, we cannot afford to put proposals second place to even the most intriguing of personalities.
That is why I was so proud to stand with Mayor Bill de Blasio at Gracie Mansion in New York recently as he announced a major effort to force a national discussion about how to curtail income inequality.
"How is it that it's already April 2015, and there is no serious debate on income inequality in this country?" de Blasio asked at the event. "We are not talking about the things that would actually address the situation."
The mayor is going out on a limb. Lots of cautious political insiders would advise him to hunker down, focus on New York and avoid making waves.
Instead, he is using his national standing to develop a template for attacking the massive wall separating the middle class from our dreams. He plans next month to roll out a major set of policy initiatives.
De Blasio is right: This is a moment for big ideas. The long-term decline in wages and the unprecedented hoarding of wealth is only one of the immediate challenges facing our nation.
The good news is that progressives appear to be taking the moment seriously.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have leveled broad critiques of how our economy is structured. The Campaign for America's Future has launched "Populism 2015" to craft a new progressive agenda. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has launched the Big Ideas Project, and liberal stalwart MoveOn.org has partnered with Robert Reich to call attention to critical problems that too often fly under the radar.
Four years ago, my own organization, Rebuild the Dream, showed the potential of this concept with a crowdsourced "Contract for the American Dream" -- signed by more than 311,000 Americans.
Progressives realize that if Democrats had spelled out a broad, ambitious, far-sighted agenda in 2014, they would not have gifted Republicans the U.S. Senate. So they are setting out to correct course -- learning from past mistakes.
Unfortunately, the Republicans appear to have learned nothing from the disastrous war in Iraq, a Wall Street meltdown, the billion-dollar toll of freak weather and superstorms, and the electoral damage of abusing faith to justify discrimination.
Instead, the 2016 Republican primary is shaping up to be a contest over who hates President Barack Obama more.
The truth is that the cautious nature of modern politics makes it unlikely that either party will spell out a vision that truly reflects the pace of technological and societal change we will face over the coming decades.
It can be hard for a candidate to talk honestly about automation, bioengineering, sustainable economies and the survival of the middle class in a high-tech age.
But we do need to try. Our nation has a chance to face down the threat of climate disruption, seize the opportunity of a green economy, give our kids the skills to compete in a high-tech world, end mass incarceration and open doors of opportunity for all Americans.
America has faced such mighty challenges before. To do it again, we need to be less obsessed with big personalities -- and more engaged with big proposals.