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Sputnik II And The State Of The Union

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WASHINGTON -- In 2008, Barack Obama's supporters saw him as Franklin Roosevelt reincarnate: the smiling, amendable guy who wanted to use Big Government to pull the nation out of its misery, New Deal-style.

As President Obama prepares for his State of the Union address to Congress next Tuesday, his aides are looking toward a different Democratic president as a political template: John F. Kennedy.

Appropriately enough, this week marks the 50th anniversary of JFK's "New Frontier" inauguration in 1961.

Rather than focus on new government programs, the president will highlight targeted tax cuts, spending restraint and the need to rebuild our technological and educational base for the long term.

The president may have no choice but to face stubbornly high unemployment and foreclosure rates throughout his term. So, as he has done on other issues, he will widen the lens, and suggest that we are at an historic -- and hopeful -- pivot point.

We can make decisions now that will "keep the American Dream alive for our children and our grandchildren," as he said recently -- even if current economic conditions remain rather bleak.

He will consciously echo the past, I am told.

Fifty years ago this week, JFK promised in his inaugural address to usher in a new generation of economic and scientific vigor as the nation faced a Cold War challenge from the Soviet Union.

Three years earlier, the Soviets had launched the Sputnik satellite, stunning a complacent United States and launching a frantic U.S. effort to catch up in schools, universities and research laboratories. In 1962, JFK promised that America would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade -- a goal achieved seven years later.

Expect the president on Tuesday to hearken back to that time, and to say we face another "Sputnik moment" -- an economic one. The Soviet Union and the Cold War are gone. In its place are China and a more benign but still as crucial struggle for primacy.

Instead of threatening to blow each other to kingdom come, the United States and China are striving to out-produce and out-consume each other.

And the U.S. is falling behind.

The president foreshadowed these themes, aides say, in a speech he gave last month at a technical college in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"Our generation's Sputnik moment is back," he said then. "This is our moment. If the recession has taught us anything, it is that we can't go back to an economy that is driven by too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out of a lot of home equity loans, paper profits that are built on financial speculation. We've got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth.

"We need to do what America has always been known for: building, innovating, educating, making things. We don't want to be a nation that simply buys and consumes products from other countries. We want to create and sell products all over the world that are stamped with three simple words: "Made in America."

The Sputnik II theme has its virtues as a sales tool. It is upbeat, challengingly optimistic in the Kennedy manner. It seems almost non-ideological at a time of divided government. And it adds some nationalist luster to what is essentially a tactical shift toward the "middle" and an all-out appeal to corporate America.

In Washington, where presidents are judged by whom they invite to state dinners, the message of the one with the president of China was clear enough: it may as well have been a sales meeting for U.S. companies eager to sell more in China.

There aren't Kennedy hands around to execute the policy, so President Obama is doing the next best thing.

As he girds for reelection and for battles with Republicans in Congress, he has surrounded himself with pro-business veterans of the Clinton years -- from new Chief of Staff Bill Daley and new Biden Chief of Staff Bruce Reed to economic advisor Gene Sperling, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Budget Director Jack Lew.

Clinton rose to power as a "pro-business" Democrat in the conservative Reagan Era. His alumni know how to operate in a Republican environment. And so, if you think about it, did Jack Kennedy.

But even Clinton himself might prefer to invoke JFK. Surely Obama does. After all, he ran against the Clinton era, until he hired everyone who worked in it.