WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama calls in his State of the Union address for a new focus on American competitiveness, he'll be striking a theme seized on for decades by presidents of both parties – with mixed results.
Ever since the Soviet Union stunned America with the Sputnik satellite launch in 1957, presidents have warned Congress and the public that more needs to be done to ensure the U.S. keeps pace with the rest of the world. Yet by some measures America has only fallen farther behind, raising the question of what impact Obama's renewed focus on the concept really can have.
Obama is expected to raise the goal of increased competitiveness Tuesday night to get lawmakers and the public behind investments in education, innovation and infrastructure. But to Republicans, competitiveness means something different. They are already bridling at the suggestion of any new spending, and to them boosting competitiveness argues for less intervention by Washington, not more.
"The word competitiveness means different things to different people," said Bill Booher, executive vice president at the nonpartisan Council on Competitiveness. "We have to identify what competitiveness means and how we achieve that in a much different way today than perhaps we have ever done."
When President Ronald Reagan warned in his 1987 State of the Union that "it's widely said that America is losing her competitive edge," his solution included expanding free trade. President George W. Bush said a key component of competitiveness was tax cuts. President George H.W. Bush had a "Council on Competitiveness" which came to be seen by some as a tool for businesses to kill regulations; President Bill Clinton eliminated it shortly after taking office.
Indeed, a call for keeping America competitive can come off as little more than a politician's rationale to push whatever policies he supported in the first place. So while Republicans would hardly dispute Obama's desire for a competitive America, that doesn't mean the president will be able to unify them behind his plans to get there.
Obama just announced a Council on Jobs and Competitiveness to be chaired by General Electric chief executive Jeff Immelt, and wants to improve education and research, and boost the U.S. economy and domestic business investments. The aims are similar to the goals of his predecessors' competitiveness initiatives, but over the years U.S. students have fallen behind, a gaping trade deficit has opened, and developing countries like China have poured money into investments like high-speed rail while America stood back.
Obama wants it to be different this time, and he is trying to add urgency to his appeal by casting it as "our generation's Sputnik moment," as he put it in a speech last month in North Carolina. "In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind," the president said.
The first "Sputnik moment," when the Soviet Union beat the U.S. in sending a satellite into space, pushed President Dwight D. Eisenhower to fund an increase in scientists and engineers. President John F. Kennedy subsequently spurred America toward the 1969 moon landing.
Now, Obama says, "we need a commitment to innovation that we haven't seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon."
But in today's divided Washington, Obama may have a hard time getting Republicans and Democrats to agree to go anywhere together.
01/26/2011 3:54 PM EST
Reid vs. Obama
President Obama vowed on Tuesday to veto any bill with earmarks, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) strongly disagrees.
01/26/2011 1:51 PM EST
Did Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) watch Tea Party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) speech last night? No.
01/26/2011 1:48 PM EST
Spitzer Steps Up
01/26/2011 12:53 PM EST
'You Believe In Socialism'
We mentioned last night that Rep. Paul Brown tweeted to President Obama, "You believe in socialism." Here's more info on the story.
|@ RepPaulBrounMD : Mr. President, you don't believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism.|
01/26/2011 11:43 AM EST
HuffPost polling expert Mark Blumenthal dives into the polling from last night's speech:
The results of the instant snap polls by CBS News, CNN/ORC and the Democratic pollsters at Democracy Corps all show overwhelmingly positive responses to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address from Tuesday night. Yet if past history is a guide, these impressions will not translate into a "bump" -- a lasting, measurable change in public opinion. These snap polls, for reasons that have never been clear, almost always yield an immediately favorable response.
One of the big challenges pollsters face in measuring reactions to the State of the Union address is that reaching a fresh random sample of adults within minutes of the speech is nearly impossible. Moreover, not everyone watches the speech. So those that try to measure reactions to the speech compromise, and aim to interview only those who say they have watched the speech.
01/26/2011 11:29 AM EST
HuffPost's Peter Goodman writes:
His words aimed for and found the space above the partisan divide in which presumably all key constituencies can benefit: If we invest strategically to nurture broad-based economic growth, that should generate jobs for factory workers and office-dwellers alike. It should increase orders for auto parts, software and catering. And, yes, a growing economy should create more dealmaking opportunities for Wall Street -- a fine thing, provided it delivers finance to productive parts of the economy that will use it to churn out goods and services of real value.
There is simply no constituency that loses when the economy grows. This was the unspoken fact at the heart of the president's speech.
But words, of course, are something short of action, and it was hard to listen to this speech without wondering: What took so long? How could we have gone two years into an administration that began in the midst of the most punishing economic downturn since the Depression, before the president -- a man elected in large part on the strength of his empathy and understanding -- laid out this kind of vision?
Read the rest here.
01/26/2011 11:22 AM EST
O'Donnell Weighs In
Christine O'Donnell: Obama's State of the Union address was "hypocritical."
01/26/2011 11:02 AM EST
Jason Linkins' headline says it all: "State Of The Union Successfully Unites America Around Oily Fish"
01/26/2011 11:00 AM EST
McCain:'Much Different Feeling'
John McCain tells ABC News that "there [were] a number of areas that the president has clearly shifted his opinion on," and added that this year's State of the Union address had a "much different feeling."
01/26/2011 10:33 AM EST
William K. Black blogs on HuffPost about the State of the Union:
What "this" is Obama referring to when he says "This is our generation's Sputnik moment"? (And whose generation is "our" generation?) Sputnik was a "moment" -- its launch was a sensation. It caused Americans to engage in a massive reappraisal of U.S. policy and leadership. Sputnik made clear a potential Soviet threat to American's lives. The Soviet Union first tested a hydrogen bomb in 1953. By 1957, the Soviets had the rocket technology to put Sputnik in orbit. It was clear that they would soon have the capability of attacking any American city with a hydrogen bomb -- and that the U.S. had no means of stopping such an attack. Sputnik was an enormously big deal because every American understood the unprecedented threat to our survival.
President Kennedy made Sputnik one of the keys to his campaign. It happened on Eisenhower's watch. Kennedy claimed that it showed the need for a new, more innovative generation to take the reins of power and revitalize the nation. Whatever "this" Obama was referring to, it isn't a "moment" and it hasn't caused such a reappraisal. Because Obama cannot tell us what "this" is, it's tough to use the metaphor to convince the nation that we should pay for the modern equivalent of a space race to address it.