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Why Sputnik?

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"This is our generation's Sputnik moment," President Obama declared in his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening. Interesting metaphor. I was around for the launching of Sputnik in 1957. He wasn't. Sputnik created a huge wave of shock and paranoia in the United States. The Soviets were beating us! We were losing the Space Race! And maybe the Cold War.

President Obama was doing what politicians do all the time. He was trying to create a mood of crisis in the country. And for a reason: That's the only way we get things done.

Ever notice how Tea Party activists worship the Constitution? Their bumper stickers say, "I must be a Right-Wing Extremist. I Believe in the Constitution." That's not blind faith. It's a political agenda. Conservatives argue that the Constitution, as it was written in 1787, enshrines the concept of limited government. They are not wrong.

Distrust of government is embedded in the Constitution, which was written by men who disliked central government (King George III) and intended it to be as weak as possible. Hence, the elaborate system of checks and balances and separation of powers and the many ways government action can be blocked. The Constitution actually replaced an earlier document, the Articles of Confederation, that created a government so weak it was unworkable.

That's a dirty little secret of American government. It was designed not to work very well. And it often doesn't. As president after president has discovered, there are many ways opponents can stop measures from getting passed, even if the president's party holds a majority in Congress (see Clinton, health care reform, 1994, or Bush, Social Security reform, 2005).

But there's another dirty little secret of American government. It does work. It works when there's an overwhelming sense of public urgency. In other words, a crisis. When the public demands action, barriers fall away and things get done, often with amazing speed and efficiency. It's just like Rahm Emanuel said in 2009, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."

Sputnik gave us the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (note the title). NDEA was the first large-scale involvement of the federal government in education, which had always been seen as the exclusive domain of state and local governments. Americans rally to the banner, "Local control of education!" A rather odd banner, that. How many local ways can there be to teach the Pythagorean Theorem?

NDEA produced major federal investment in education. Ever hear of language labs? They were these strange, high-tech (for the time) electronic contrivances with recordings and earphones that were supposed to help students learn foreign languages. We had one in my public school in Virginia. Nobody could figure out how to use it.

Politicians are always hyping issues, trying to turn them into a crisis. They declare a drug crisis or an education crisis or an environmental crisis. Or they try to rally the country to fight a "war" on something -- a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on terror. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't, like President Carter's "crisis of the American spirit" in 1979, a.k.a. the "malaise crisis."

And the new "Sputnik crisis" President Obama was talking about? Global competitiveness. "We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," Obama declared. You half expected the chamber to erupt in cries of "We're number one! U-S-A!"

What's the big threat? Asia. "Just recently, China became home to the world's largest solar research facility and the world's fastest computer... South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do." And what do we need to win this competition? Investment. Big-time investment, in education and research and infrastructure. Things that only the federal government can do because they are too large-scale or because they don't have a short-term profit incentive.

"We do big things," the president said. Three times. Well, we used to. The Democratic Party used to be the party of great enterprises for great purposes at home and abroad -- the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the Great Society, the civil rights movement. In the 1990s, the party's agenda seemed to shrink to "the safety net." There weren't any great crises.

Now there is: the Great Recession. By two to one in the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, Americans believe the country is not going in the right direction. The Chinese and the Indians are eating our lunch. President Obama seized on that feeling of national decline and tried to turn it into a drive to compete. "The world has changed," he said Tuesday evening. "The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn't discourage us. It should challenge us."

The alternative is austerity. Slash public spending! That's what the British government did, and look at what happened. The British economy shrank in the last quarter. Britain is in danger of a double-dip recession.

Republicans are hyping a different crisis. "Our debt is out of control," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said in the official GOP response to the State of the Union. "What was a fiscal challenge is now a fiscal crisis."

The country has been living with a fiscal crisis for most of the past 30 years. But the deficit has never taken on the urgency of a real crisis. Not a big enough crisis for voters to say, "Do something -- Anything! Raise taxes! Slash entitlement spending! -- to get us out of this mess." Even now, 51 percent of Americans in the CBS/Times poll name jobs and the economy as the biggest problem facing the country. Only 6 percent cite the deficit.

What happens if the sense of urgency isn't real? Then the system of limited government locks into place. Nothing much gets done. We get gridlock. It's in the Constitution.

State of the Union 2011 Full Text