WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama calls in his State of the Union address for a new focus on American competitiveness, he'll be striking a theme seized on for decades by presidents of both parties – with mixed results.
Ever since the Soviet Union stunned America with the Sputnik satellite launch in 1957, presidents have warned Congress and the public that more needs to be done to ensure the U.S. keeps pace with the rest of the world. Yet by some measures America has only fallen farther behind, raising the question of what impact Obama's renewed focus on the concept really can have.
Obama is expected to raise the goal of increased competitiveness Tuesday night to get lawmakers and the public behind investments in education, innovation and infrastructure. But to Republicans, competitiveness means something different. They are already bridling at the suggestion of any new spending, and to them boosting competitiveness argues for less intervention by Washington, not more.
"The word competitiveness means different things to different people," said Bill Booher, executive vice president at the nonpartisan Council on Competitiveness. "We have to identify what competitiveness means and how we achieve that in a much different way today than perhaps we have ever done."
When President Ronald Reagan warned in his 1987 State of the Union that "it's widely said that America is losing her competitive edge," his solution included expanding free trade. President George W. Bush said a key component of competitiveness was tax cuts. President George H.W. Bush had a "Council on Competitiveness" which came to be seen by some as a tool for businesses to kill regulations; President Bill Clinton eliminated it shortly after taking office.
Indeed, a call for keeping America competitive can come off as little more than a politician's rationale to push whatever policies he supported in the first place. So while Republicans would hardly dispute Obama's desire for a competitive America, that doesn't mean the president will be able to unify them behind his plans to get there.
Obama just announced a Council on Jobs and Competitiveness to be chaired by General Electric chief executive Jeff Immelt, and wants to improve education and research, and boost the U.S. economy and domestic business investments. The aims are similar to the goals of his predecessors' competitiveness initiatives, but over the years U.S. students have fallen behind, a gaping trade deficit has opened, and developing countries like China have poured money into investments like high-speed rail while America stood back.
Obama wants it to be different this time, and he is trying to add urgency to his appeal by casting it as "our generation's Sputnik moment," as he put it in a speech last month in North Carolina. "In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind," the president said.
The first "Sputnik moment," when the Soviet Union beat the U.S. in sending a satellite into space, pushed President Dwight D. Eisenhower to fund an increase in scientists and engineers. President John F. Kennedy subsequently spurred America toward the 1969 moon landing.
Now, Obama says, "we need a commitment to innovation that we haven't seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon."
But in today's divided Washington, Obama may have a hard time getting Republicans and Democrats to agree to go anywhere together.