Obama: U.S. needs ‘Sputnik’ moment to boost competitiveness

President Obama called for a burst of innovation in the U.S. economy.

Warning of a future where America could lag other nations, President Barack Obama on Dec. 6 called for more spending on education, innovation, and infrastructure to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Without detailing specific new proposals, the president told community college teachers and students it was time for an American “Sputnik moment,” referring to the 1957 Soviet satellite launch that jolted the U.S. into jump-starting its own space and science programs.

“We need a commitment to innovation we haven’t seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon,” Obama said.

The speech was a preview of Obama’s State of the Union address early in 2011, and his 2011 agenda as he grapples with a divided Congress over the next two years, aides said.

“Right now the hard truth is this,” Obama said. “In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind. That’s just the truth. And if you hear a politician say it’s not, they’re just not paying attention.”

The president set out a goal that no politician would dispute: for America “to win the future.”

The disagreements will come over how to get there, with Republicans certain to be skeptical of any new program that costs tax dollars.

The first “Sputnik moment” spurred President Dwight D. Eisenhower to fund an educational initiative to increase the number of scientists and engineers in a nonmilitary setting, said American University public policy professor Howard McCurdy, an expert on space and technology history. It was without a specific goal, but it was given a goal to get to the moon and made more of a race and militaristic by President John F. Kennedy, McCurdy said.

McCurdy said that while a jolt of innovation is needed for the country, he’s not sure what type of precipitous major event a Sputnik moment Obama is referring to. Usually, it requires “a Pearl Harbor, a shock to the system,” and is followed by something new and major, neither of which is occurring, he said.

Obama acknowledged the hard reality of the country’s fiscal woes, and said he’d be looking at the recent proposals from his budget commission to find ways to trim deficits over the short term.

But, the president said, “I will argue and insist that we cannot cut back on those investments that have the biggest impact on our economic growth.”

He said that cutting spending on education, research and development, and green technologies would be like trying to reduce the weight of an airplane by removing the engine.

“We’ve got to have a long-term vision about where we want to be 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now,” he said.

Obama also used his speech at Forsyth Technical Community College to press for a compromise on the continuation of Bush-era tax cuts, reiterating his position that no upper-income tax cuts should be extended unless jobless benefits are as well.

Even as Obama spoke in Winston-Salem, negotiations were under way in Washington toward a deal that would extend jobless benefits along with a temporary extension of all the tax cuts. Such a deal would fall short of Obama’s long-stated goal of extending tax cuts for middle-income people while letting cuts expire for the rich.

The president seemed resigned to a compromise, saying a solution must be found to keep middle-class taxes from going up, “even if it’s not 100 percent of what I want or what the Republicans want.”

But the president insisted he’d be resolute in ensuring America’s competitiveness. He reeled off a string of statistics showing Asian nations and other countries pulling ahead of the U.S. in certain areas, science graduates among them.

The nation needs more high-speed rail, broadband internet access, and spending on roads and bridges, he said.

“Today China has the fastest trains and the fastest supercomputers in the world,” the president said.

He called for “flipping the script” on trade so the U.S. sells more to other nations than it buys from them.

Obama said he chose to speak at Forsyth Technical Community College because it’s a model of an educational institution that supplies everyone from high school graduates to laid-off auto workers with new skills to work in industries of the future.

Before his remarks he toured classrooms full of students in lab coats experimenting on cells and chromosomes, the sort of work he says will produce high wages and a competitive edge for the country.

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Laura Ascione

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