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Obama Urges America To Regain Global Economic Competitiveness

  • Heather Maher

"This is our generation's 'Sputnik' moment," U.S. President Barack Obama told a joint session of Congress.

"This is our generation's 'Sputnik' moment," U.S. President Barack Obama told a joint session of Congress.

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has told Americans that the nation is experiencing a "Sputnik" moment -- a reference to the 1957 Soviet satellite launch that inspired a new era of U.S. innovation -- and laid out an ambitious blueprint to create jobs and restore American competitiveness in the world.

In his annual State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama made what was at times a passionate case for why public investment in American innovation and research is necessary to compete in the new global economy.

Going into the speech, Washington's more cynical political observers noted that if Obama doesn't find a way to create millions of American jobs over the next two years, he risks losing his own job in the 2012 election.

Indeed, with his reelection campaign already under way in Chicago, Obama sounded like the White House candidate he once was, promising bipartisan leadership to solve the country's problems and saying "we will move forward together, or not at all -- for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics."

"At stake right now is not who wins the next election," he said. "At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It's whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world."

'The Rules Have Changed'

In that spirit, Obama challenged the two political parties who now share power in Congress -- his own Democratic Party and the Republican Party -- to work together on policies that will allow America to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world."

Obama said the U.S. economy has finally begun to recover from its dark years on the edge of depression and argued that now is the time to seize the momentum, with government supported research, and new investment in biomedical research, information technology, and clean energy.

He recalled how the Soviet Union's 1957 surprise launch of the "Sputnik" satellite spurred America into action and led to an unprecedented wave of innovation, which he summoned again. "Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called 'Sputnik¸' we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon," Obama said.

"But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's 'Sputnik' moment," he said.

To emphasize his point that America has slipped in the race for global jobs, Obama noted that China and India educate their children earlier and longer than American schools, and with a greater emphasis on math and science. And he pointed out that generous investment in research has made China home to "the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer."

The rules of economic competitiveness have changed, Obama said, and without mentioning the country's nearly 10 percent unemployment rate, described how difficult it is for Americans who want to work to find jobs.

Business Friendly Policies

As he spoke, several invited CEOs of major U.S. corporations who sat listening in the chamber's galleries applauded when Obama declared, "We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That's how our people will prosper. That's how we'll win the future."

Obama vowed to increase the amount the government spends on research and development to its highest level in 50 years, as a percentage of total spending, and to add 100,000 new math and science teachers by 2020.

And he called for major improvements to the country's infrastructure, with investment in high-speed rail, airports, wireless Internet coverage, again casting it as an issue of global competitiveness.

"Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports," Obama said.

Fiscal conservatives in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are set on slashing some $100 billion this year alone, and mindful of this, Obama called for a five-year partial freeze on domestic spending, except on national security. He said the money for the spending he called for would come from savings in other areas, such as ending subsidies to oil companies.

Foreign Policy Successes

In a speech that was focused almost entirely on the domestic economy, Obama made only passing references to U.S. foreign policy, including two wars that have drained the nation's coffers and contributed at least in part to the country's economic woes.

He declared that U.S. and NATO goals are on track in both Afghanistan and Iraq, saying "the Iraq war is coming to an end," and that "thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency."

He predicted "tough fighting ahead" and warned that "the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance." But he added, "We are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them. This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home."

He also ticked off successes in other areas of his foreign policy agenda. On Iran, he said Tehran is facing the toughest sanctions yet for pursuing suspect nuclear activities. On relations with Russia, he said a successful White House "reset" had improved cooperation and the New START arms control treaty passed by the U.S. Senate had solidified the two countries' strategic partnership.

And on America's strength in the face of enemies, wherever they might be, Obama vowed, "From the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe, we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you."

The joint session of Congress was notable for a bipartisan spirit in honor of a lawmaker who was shot during an assassination attempt earlier this month.

Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat member of the House who represents the southwestern state of Arizona, was one of 19 people shot, six fatally, in an attack on January 8 by a lone gunman.

In honor of Giffords, who is recovering from a serious brain injury, members of Congress abandoned their usual practice of sitting with their own party and instead sat together, many wearing a black-and-white ribbon in honor of the victims.