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This Isn't Your Grandfather's Sputnik Moment

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 - 10:56 AM

The build-up to President Obama’s State of the Union Address had suggested he was going to boldly challenge Americans to rise to meet the “Sputnik moment” of our generation. It was a tantalizing claim. Liberals hoped this sense of purpose would justify new investment in jobs, infrastructure and education, despite the worries of deficit hawks. Conservatives looked forward to pro-business policies behind the themes of entrepreneurship and innovation and were intrigued by the tone of American exceptionalism hinted at in the speech’s promotion.

On Tuesday night, President Obama delivered an address that had a little for everyone. It probably sent liberals and conservatives away with feelings as mixed as their seating arrangements. It captured a moderate — and moderating — tenor. It didn’t hit the emotional poignancy of his Tucson remarks two weeks ago, but it didn’t try. In fact, despite the claim that the president was going to issue a challenge equivalent to a moon-landing, this speech didn’t shoot for the moon. And the viewers most disappointed may be the ones who were expecting the “Sputnik moment” to be bolder.

The president did recall President Kennedy’s daring pledge to put a man on the moon within a decade at a time when Russians were passing us in the space race. He used that historical moment to paint a picture of where we are now: our students falling behind, bridges falling down and energy grid falling apart while other nations, especially China, outpace us. He also used it to call for a battery of measures to promote investment and innovation: from direct government spending to regulation and tax reforms that get government out of business’ way.

If our Senators and Representatives hadn’t been comingled, one side would have risen for public investment and the other for the corporate tax reductions. Instead, the Congressional reaction was more nuanced, and most Americans probably heard a slew of balanced propositions without immediate partisan division. Which may be exactly what the president hoped.

Despite the ominous signs of his recent appointments of Bill Daley and Jeffrey Immelt, the speech did not push aside his progressive supporters. It did talk about the role of government to invest in research, transportation and information technology in terms that could appeal to progressives. His call to do away with the tax breaks for richest Americans rings hollow given recent compromises, but still elicits cheers from the left. When he referred to unnecessary tax loopholes as wasteful spending, he put a more appealing frame on a core concern of Democrats. And his recognition of gay Americans serving in the military was a reminder that he is attentive to social justice issues at the heart of liberal America. 

That he didn’t speak about common sense gun control laws while the issue of gun violence is in the front of the nation’s collective attention shows that the president was trying to steer away from thornier issues that immediately divide the electorate. The most controversial he was willing to be was in offering his support to rationalize our immigration policy — and even that, he carefully and cleverly cloaked in language of investment and entrepreneurship.

Conservatives, though, went home having seen a president who understood the realities of a divided Congress and frustrated public. While Obama spoke about government investment, he just as much championed businesses, especially “small businesses,” as the generators of job growth. His call to reduce corporate taxes is one that Republicans should applaud (and his claim that closing loopholes was a signal to liberals that this isn’t meant just to be a big-business giveaway). He spoke about attacking government waste, freezing discretionary spending and eliminating pork — all red-meat to the Right. His joke about the nonsense of one government agency regulating salmon in salt water and a different agency for fresh water was nearly Reagan-esque in its ability to lampoon government through folksy humor.

That doesn’t mean that conservatives will readily embrace this address, as the two rebuttals — first the official Republican response by Paul Ryan, then the Tea Party reaction from Michele Bachmann — demonstrated.  But it would be hard for them to attack Obama’s bipartisan goals. Investment in education and innovation is hardly controversial. How to pay for such investment may divide the sides, but the president skillfully paired Republican and Democratic priorities: lowering corporate tax cuts AND closing loopholes; cutting government waste including unnecessary waste of tax cuts for the wealth; pushing for reusable energy and supporting clean coal.

At moments, the president came close to the promised “Sputnik moment.” He called for America to use 80 percent clean energy by 2035, not quite as dramatic as putting a man on the moon, but it was something.  He immediately listed “clean coal” among those sources, which soured the goal for liberals, and attacked oil which made Republicans wince. He promised that if researchers could generate our next Apollo project, the government would be there to make it happen. But the target is too squishy, the deadline too distant and the support too vague to really galvanize the public. In another moment that echoed Kennedy’s call for Americans to serve their country, Obama asked students to become teachers. If he continues that rhetoric in the years ahead, and makes educational service a cherished form of national service, he’ll be doing a great service for this country.

In the end, though, these are not “Sputnik moments.” Maybe Americans’ fears aren’t as clearly directed as they were when Russia launched a satellite. Our anxieties are more open-ended now, so we don’t just need bold presidential declarations, we need a national discussion. It’s possible that President Obama is opening that very discussion with the American people. Now let’s see if following one night of bipartisan seating, members of Congress are ready to join the conversation.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."

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