A Script for “Sputnik”: Obama’s State of the Union Challenge

Barack Obama is coming off the most historic legislative achievements since Lyndon Johnson, but politics is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. The president needs to begin charting a new course now for the nation. Notice how I didn’t say “for the world.” Global leadership is essential, but our preeminent challenge today is national.

Obama said recently that we’re in a “Sputnik moment,” which was a reference to the shock experienced in the United States when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space on Oct. 4, 1957. I know the date by heart because I was born two days later. My Russian-born grandmother joked that my middle name should be Sputnik, but she didn’t spread the idea around too loudly at the peak of the Cold War.

Sputnik had two, connected consequences for the United States, both of them essential for the world we now live in. In 1958 Congress established NASA, which led not only to men on the moon, but also to huge breakthroughs in computers and building materials. The same year lawmakers passed the National Defense Education Act, which increased federal investment in education nearly sixfold. That a seemingly backward country like the Soviet Union could beat us in math and science made technological innovation and American education into national-security issues.

And so they are again, with a few twists. Nowadays the competition is more economic than military. The rise of China is a slow-motion sputnik, and we’ve long been more inept at confronting distant challenges than immediate threats (see climate change). But our economic challenge isn’t distant. There’s nothing slo-mo about 10 percent unemployment and a hollowed-out middle class. There’s nothing hypothetical about slipping behind our competitors in math and science. We already have.

Fortunately, we have a president with the rhetorical skills to rouse us. Unfortunately, he hasn’t so far. Obama’s biggest mistake in his first two years was that he took Mario Cuomo’s famous dictum — “you campaign in poetry and govern in prose” — too much to heart. To succeed, he needs to govern in poetry, too. He needs to use the music of his voice to sell math and science and engineering and entrepreneurship and all the other skill sets we let deteriorate when our brightest college graduates went to work on Wall Street.

That’s where the upcoming State of the Union Message comes in. Let’s hope Obama used some of his time off to think hard about making this country Innovation Nation again. Innovation springs mostly from the private sector, but Washington can help. Tax reform (a permanent reduction in the payroll tax would create millions of small-business jobs), immigration (the children of immigrants, even illegal ones, have historically turbocharged the country), energy policy (we’re getting whipped in the clean-energy race), and education (higher standards and more accountability would help train our workforce to compete) are all central to fostering innovation. Every government agency should be asked to assess what it’s doing to promote healthy and dynamic economic growth — a kind of “innovation impact statement.”

To make the address memorable, the president and his speechwriters have to dig deeper. Consider what “rendezvous with destiny” did for Franklin Roosevelt or “Axis of Evil” for George W. Bush. Obama needs one or two brief images or metaphors that linger in the mind. A joint session of Congress is his best format, and his speech will surely be well delivered. But if it’s lacking a line that can be chiseled in marble (or at least tweeted), he won’t set the tone he needs for the remainder of his term.

Even if Obama follows the historical norm, where presidents accomplish little legislatively after their first two years, he must move quickly to put a more distinctive stamp on his presidency. That means pivoting in the State of the Union to what Richard Nixon infelicitously called “the lift of a driving dream” and George H.W. Bush labeled “the vision thing.”

In 2009 and 2010 the American presidency was mostly about triage; now it’s about developing the treatments of tomorrow, the ones that will assure the U.S. stays strong. The response to this “sputnik moment” won’t be a rocket but perhaps a new drug to sell in the vast China market or a new battery made in Michigan or something like Google or Facebook that we can’t even imagine yet. President Obama’s task in 2011 is to frame our choice — innovate or stagnate — then offer instructional tips on inventing the future.

Alter’s book The Promise: President Obama, Year One will be published this month in paperback.

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