01/26/2011 11:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Words Must Now Become Action

President Barack Obama last night articulated a coherent and necessary vision for how to exploit the still-abundant strengths of the American economy and get them working to create millions of jobs.

After the torturous positioning that filled out the weeks leading up to the speech, the analysis of Obama's supposed new penchant for the center and his pandering to business interests, this was the sort of speech that a nation still hungering for an encouraging future needed to hear.

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?

Most important, will he manage to navigate a typically dysfunctional political system to find the dollars required to turn this vision into action? Let us hope so.

It was particularly encouraging to hear the president touch on the need to boost American fortunes in the global economy in a way that focused on available solutions. Rather than blame job losses and decline on China and India -- convenient and typically misleading scapegoats in too many narratives -- Obama noted that their gains have come in part because of successful nation-building, an emphasis on broadening access to education and building out infrastructure in a way that boosts commerce.

We cannot force China to alter their exchange-rate policy, which effectively makes their goods unfairly cheap on world markets and costs some Americans jobs, but we can focus on the opportunities that we do control, the president seemed to be saying. We can compete by tapping our unrivaled innovation, and by spreading the benefits of education through our own society. We too can build out infrastructure, improving highways and adding high-speed rail. There are so many people out of work and there is so much work to be done.

It was particularly encouraging to hear Obama place special emphasis on the need to embrace cleaner sources of energy. As the president rightly noted, expanding renewable energy sources is not only a prime way to lessen our dependence on imported oil from often-hostile states and address climate change. It is also a potentially excellent way to put people back to work in hard- hit industrial communities, particularly in the Rust Belt.

Constructing wind turbines at scale requires parts and tools and steel. The finished products are so heavy and bulky that they are best constructed near where they will be deployed. Not for nothing is the Great Plains often referred to as the Saudi Arabia of Wind. Making the piece parts for an emerging renewable energy industry could be a fertile source of new jobs in areas surrounding the Great Plains.

Obama's use of Forsyth Tech, a community college in North Carolina, as an example of what he has in mind, was most appropriate. The program has trained workers cast off from industries like tobacco, textiles and furniture-making for new careers in biotechnology. In some sense, North Carolina's challenge is a microcosm of the nation's: Here is a state full of industries that prospered in the previous industrial age, yet has struggled as automation has replaced factory workers with machines, and as labor-intensive enterprises have shifted to low-wage manufacturing centers in Asia and Latin America.

Here, in short, is a state full of people accustomed to working for a living, with smarts and skills, but not always the right ones for the sorts of industries that now hold the most promise. North Carolina took stock of its many strengths and planned strategically for how best to exploit them: It has turned itself into one of the country's preeminent centers for biotechnology research and bio-manufacturing.

This did not happen without planning. The state harnessed the brainpower of its top research campuses--some of the leading centers of biotech on earth-- while launching the training program through its network of community colleges. The program prepares young people and older workers from declining industries for new jobs in biotech. Even the entry-level jobs typically pay far more than workers previously earned stitching up socks and making sofas.

But as Obama correctly noted last night, these sorts of transitions do not happen by relying on the private sector alone. They require government money.

"Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation," he said. "But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That's what planted the seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs -- from manufacturing to retail -- that have come from these breakthroughs."

This part of the speech simply cannot be underscored enough. In the economic-policy arena, it sometimes seems that the nation's long-vexing culture war has seeped in. Anyone inclined to call for government leadership and financial support must be prepared to be lampooned as an advocate for Chairman Mao's collectives. But as Obama importantly noted, the industries that have time and again proven most beneficial have also been the most difficult to launch, because research is expensive and cannot predictably be turned into commercial success. Failures in the lab can be costly and yet advance scientific understanding in crucial ways. Unless government shoulders the burden -- something China has been doing aggressively in biotech and renewable energy -- the breakthroughs tend not to arrive.

So the question now is whether the president's muscular rhetoric will be backed up by real dollars and attention. As my colleague Amy Lee reminded us earlier this week in a useful bit of analysis, President Obama has a history of promising huge funding for research and development in clean energy technologies, only to fall short.

The president once again delivered a warning about the need to address the budget deficit Tuesday night, and you could read that different ways. You could hear in the speech a legitimate plan for attacking the deficit: Invest now, reap the resulting growth and then, when things are humming, cut spending and raise taxes on the wealthy to get the deficit down.

But with the pageantry of the State of the Union now behind us, the halls of Congress return to their usual function as the killing zone for ideas big and small. The real test lies ahead, as Obama crafts his next spending plan knowing he will have to navigate it through a now Republican-controlled House eager to deprive him of victories even at the cost of jobs and economic growth. He will have to confront centrist Democrats vulnerable to seeing the deficit as the only issue and unwilling to sign off on costly investments.

This was a useful speech, a productive framework for policy. Let us hope that a year from now it will look like a genuine action plan, as opposed a momentary bit of inspiration soon trumped by the narrow obsession with dismantling government in the name of deficit reduction.