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.

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Laura Ascione

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