Obama's New Theme: A Sputnik Moment

President Obama gave a speech today in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Billed as a speech on the economy, it may provide an early forecast of what is likely to be the overarching theme of Obama's State Of The Union speech next month. While this speech has not gotten a whole lot of attention so far, one phrase of it is garnering some mild interest: the idea that America is experiencing a "Sputnik moment." What remains to be seen is whether this talking point is going to catch on and become an actual Democratic narrative next year. It certainly is worth mentioning, due to the almost complete lack of any Democratic narrative these days. Whether it inspires the public's imagination, though, is an even tougher row to hoe.

I actually noticed this phrase a day earlier, when Senator John Kerry used it on Meet The Press. Here is how Kerry put it (I've edited out the inane bleatings of host David Gregory from the transcript, by popular demand):

I think it's critical for people to understand what the Republican -- how bankrupt, how fundamentally reckless their position is and has been. And the fact is -- I mean, let me go a little bigger here for a minute. Our country is challenged economically as never before. You know, people talk about American exceptionalism and how there's sort of this automatic for America. Yes, we are exceptional, but we're exceptional when we do exceptional things, when we behave exceptionally. We're not doing that today. We're locked down into a gridlock status where other countries are racing by us. I'll give you an example. Over the next 20 years, $600 billion is going to be invested in green technology and green energy. New jobs. New jobs that could be for Americans. Ninety percent of that investment's going to be in other countries, David.

. . .

By the Chinese and by a lot of other people. You know, two years ago China produced five percent of the world's solar panels. Today they produce 60 percent. We're not even in the game. We, we invented this technology at the Bell Laboratories 50 years ago. We don't have one company in the top 10 companies of the world. Shame on us. The point I'm making is that you can't just talk about American exceptionalism and then sit around and feed the frenzy of this tax cut at the upper end. You've got to invest in America's future.

. . .

The Republican agenda is tax cut and cut spending. We cannot cut our way to competition with these other countries. If we're going to be a great power, if we're going to project in the world, if we're going to put America back to work and be part of the $6 trillion market that is the new energy market of the future with six billion users, we need to invest in America's future.

. . .

[T]he president is fighting to get an infrastructure development effort in America so we regrow our own country. He's fighting for an energy policy that they fought against all last year and delayed and delayed and delayed, even though we made compromise after compromise. And I know that because I was negotiating it. And we need R-and-D, we need science, technology, engineering, math. We need to kick America into gear. This is our Sputnik moment. We've sort of seen Sputnik going across the sky, but we've done nothing similar to what we did in the 1960s to respond to it.

Today, President Obama made exactly the same point, using exactly the same talking point. Such coordination in talking points is rare for Democrats, which is one of the reasons it may be part of an effort by the White House to float it as a trial balloon -- and at this time of year, such trial balloons (if deemed successful) usually wind up in the State Of The Union speech, when more people are tuned in.

But the concept of a "Sputnik moment" is a risky political metaphor on a number of levels. Firstly, any hint of America not leading the world in everything is always politically chancy, given the general public's almost religious belief that this is (and will always be) true. Secondly, when seen through the lens of history, it's hard to measure up to the original Sputnik moment, and attempting to draw this parallel may not work because while America may indeed be having a Sputnik moment to some degree or another, the American people are definitely not having the same Sputnik experience.

It is quite literally hard to overstate the importance of Sputnik. For those of you who don't even recognize the term, Sputnik was the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth ("artificial" meaning "man-made," a qualification necessary since we already have a natural satellite -- the moon). It was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. It didn't do much, just sent a "beep" over the radio -- which could be picked up by any amateur "ham" radio operator whenever it flew overhead.

It didn't have to do much, though, to be world-shaking. The immediate implication was that the Soviets had perfected the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, which they used to launch Sputnik. This meant they could drop a nuclear bomb anywhere on the planet.

But the key reason why this was a historic "moment" was that America could not do the same thing at the time. We had just had some spectacular launch failures in our own attempts to develop advanced missiles -- which made the moment even more embarassing for our country.

The Soviets didn't stop with a shiny two-foot ball which went "beep," though, and soon after had launched the first living thing into orbit (a dog named Laika). By 1961, the Soviets had sent the first human being (Yuri Gagarin) into space.

The message was crystal clear: America is not number one. The "Space Race" (as it was known) had begun, and we were left at the starting gate while the Soviet Union sped ahead of us. This happened right in the depths of the Cold War, when the U.S.S.R. was seen as America's mortal enemy. As I said, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of all this to Americans at the time.

President Kennedy famously reacted to these worrisome developments by starting the program which -- within the timetable of 10 years he had set -- put Americans on the moon. But there were other, lesser-known aspects of America's reaction as well. There was an enormous push to improve American children's science and technical education, for instance. Even the internet you are currently using to read this article had its roots in Sputnik -- which prompted the creation of the American military's Advanced Research Projects Agency (later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA), which went on to create the internet.

To truly understand the significance of Sputnik, in today's world the equivalent would be Al Qaeda announcing it had launched an orbiting nuclear bomb. Picture the reaction of the American public and American politicians to Osama Bin Laden appearing on television announcing they've got a nuke in orbit. That would be a true Sputnik moment.

Even that doesn't really come close, though, because you'd have to posit Al Qaeda actually having both a nuclear weapon and the technology to launch it and control it in orbit. Which is kind of a stretch of the imagination. Al Qaeda is America's enemy, there's no doubt about that, but they are not the same sort of existential threat to our country as the Soviet Union once was. "Existential threat," of course, means "threatens the very existence of" -- and Al Qaeda is just not that powerful (nor would they be even if they had one orbiting nuke, for that matter).

Instead of a military threat, today we have economic threats to the future dominance of America on the planet. And technological threats. Which simply don't give rise to the same fearful outpouring of emotion by the public. Which is why calling now a "Sputnik moment" risks falling flat -- because while it may be true on a certain level, it just doesn't provoke the same public response.

The American public still firmly believes that "We're Number One, In Everything, All The Time, And We Will Be Forever, So There." No amount of proof that this just isn't true anymore will shake this belief, either. You can list how we're number this or number that (numbers much higher than "one" in most cases) in this category or that one -- but the American public is simply not interested in hearing such things. Americans are much more comfortable chanting the mantra "We're Number One" than they are facing the reality of the twenty-first century world. Most Americans never travel beyond the borders of their country, and so it's not an everyday occurrence for them to see how other countries are leapfrogging past us in key areas.

We used to have the biggest and best of everything. We don't anymore. It's been years since the tallest building in the world was American. China just tested a train that travels at 300 miles per hour -- a new world record. We haven't even come close. The largest banks in the world used to all be American. They are not, any more. In measure after measure, we are falling behind.

But, again, the Chinese train gets maybe fifteen seconds on television, on a slow news day, and then is quickly forgotten. Which is why President Obama deciding to point it out carries a lot of risk. Americans, to be blunt, do not want to hear that they are not "Number One." And they don't usually gravitate towards politicians who point it out, which is why most of them never do.

Obama does a good job of laying it out, I will give him that. His speech in North Carolina is worth reading in full, for a sneak preview of what he might say on the subject in January's State Of The Union. I've excerpted the best parts of the speech below, for a taste of how the White House is hoping to gear up for the next legislative year.

The big problem with this political strategy is that while Obama may indeed be right about us being in serious danger of falling behind on a worldwide scale, this Sputnik moment simply doesn't have a Sputnik. There is no one overarching threat which focuses the public's attention the way that Sputnik did. Each incremental piece of news is greeted by Americans with a yawn, for the most part: "China's got a superfast train? That's nice, what's on television tonight?" Assuming that Al Qaeda doesn't orbit a nuke any time soon (a fairly safe assumption, I would wager), everything else falls far, far short of the sense of urgency engendered by the original Sputnik.

Obama makes an interesting case. He frames it correctly -- not dwelling on how much we're falling behind so much as challenging us to do better, to assure American superiority in the future. But I have a feeling it's going to be a hard sell, politically.


Excerpts from President Obama's North Carolina speech

Th[e] world has changed. In the last few decades, revolutions in communications, revolutions in technology have made businesses mobile and has made commerce global. So today, a company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there's an Internet connection. That's a transformation that's touched off a fierce competition among nations for the jobs and industries of the future.

Some of you know I traveled through Asia several weeks ago. You've got a billion people in India who are suddenly plugged into the world economy. You've got over a billion people in China who are suddenly plugged into the global economy. And that means competition is going to be much more fierce and the winners of this competition will be the countries that have the most educated workers, a serious commitment to research and technology, and access to quality infrastructure like roads and airports and high-speed rail and high-speed Internet. Those are the seeds of economic growth in the 21st century. Where they are planted, the most jobs and businesses will take root.

Now, in the last century, America was that place where innovation happened and jobs and industry always took root. The business of America was business. Our economic leadership in the world went unmatched. Now it's up to us to make sure that we maintain that leadership in this century. And at this moment, the most important contest we face is not between Democrats and Republicans. It's between America and our economic competitors all around the world. That's the competition we've got to spend time thinking about.

Now, I have no doubt we can win this competition. We are the home of the world's best universities, the best research facilities, the most brilliant scientists, the brightest minds, some of the hardest-working, most entrepreneurial people on Earth -- right here in America. It's in our DNA. Think about it. People came from all over the world to live here in the United States. That's been our history. And those were the go-getters, the risk-takers who came here. The folks who didn't want to take risks, they stayed back home. Right? So there's no doubt that we are well equipped to win.

But as it stands right now, the hard truth is this: In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind. That's just the truth. And when -- if you hear a politician say it's not, they're not paying attention. In a generation we have fallen from first place to 9th place in the proportion of young people with college degrees. When it comes to high school graduation rates, we're ranked 18th out of 24 industrialized nations -- 18th. We're 27th in the proportion of science and engineering degrees we hand out. We lag behind other nations in the quality of our math and science education.

When global firms were asked a few years back where they planned on building new research and development facilities, nearly 80 percent said either China or India -- because those countries are focused on math and science, and they're focused on training and educating their workforce.

I sat down with President Lee of South Korea, and I asked him, what's the biggest problem you have in education? He said, you know, these parents, they come to me and they are constantly pressuring me; they want their kids to learn so fast, so much -- they're even making me import English-speaking teachers in, because they want first-graders to know English. I asked him about investment in research and development. He says, we're putting aside five percent of our gross domestic product in research and development -- three percent of it in clean energy.

You go to Shanghai, China, and they've built more high-speed rail in the last year than we've built in the last 30 years. The largest private solar research and development facility in the world was recently opened in China -- by an American company. Today China also has the fastest trains and the fastest supercomputer in the world.

In 1957, just before this college opened, the Soviet Union beat us into space by launching a satellite known as Sputnik. And that was a wake-up call that caused the United States to boost our investment in innovation and education -- particularly in math and science. And as a result, once we put our minds to it, once we got focused, once we got unified, not only did we surpass the Soviets, we developed new American technologies, industries, and jobs.

So 50 years later, our generation's Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment. If the recession has taught us anything, it's that we cannot go back to an economy that's driven by too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans, paper profits that are built on financial speculation. We've got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth.

We need to do what America has always been known for: building, innovating, educating, making things. We don't want to be a nation that simply buys and consumes products from other countries. We want to create and sell products all over the world that are stamped with three simple words: "Made In America." That's our goal.

. . .

If this is truly going to be our Sputnik moment, we need a commitment to innovation that we haven't seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon. And we're directing a lot of that research into one of the most promising areas for economic growth and job creation -- and that's clean energy technology. I don't want to see new solar panels or electric cars or advanced batteries manufactured in Europe or in Asia. I want to see them made right here in America, by American businesses and American workers.

. . .

Now, the final area where greater investment will lead to more jobs and economic growth is in America's infrastructure -- our roads, our railways, our runways, our information superhighways. Over the last two years, our investment in infrastructure projects -- yes, through the Recovery Act -- have led to thousands of good private sector jobs and improved infrastructure here in North Carolina and all across the country.

But we've got a long way to go. There is no reason that over 90 percent of the homes in South Korea have broadband Internet access, and only 65 percent of American households do. Think about that. There's no reason why China should have nearly 10,000 miles of high-speed rail by 2020, and America has 400. Think about that number. They've got 10,000; we've got 400. They've got trains that operate at speeds of over 200 mph -- and I don't know how fast our trains are going.

We're the nation that built the Transcontinental Railroad. We're the nation that took the first airplane into flight. We constructed a massive Interstate Highway System. We introduced the world to the Internet. America has always been built to compete. And if we want to attract the best jobs and businesses to our shores, we've got to be that nation again.

And throughout history, the investments I've talked about -- in education and innovation and infrastructure -- have historically commanded the support from both Democrats and Republicans. It was Abraham Lincoln who launched the Transcontinental Railroad and opened the National Academy of Sciences. He did it in the middle of a war, by the way. But he knew this was so important we had to make these investments for future generations. Dwight Eisenhower helped build our highways. Republican members of Congress worked with FDR to pass the G.I. Bill.

. . .

If we can do that, I have no doubt that this will be remembered as another American century. We will meet that Sputnik moment, but we're going to all have to do it together.


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