05/25/2011 02:25 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2011

The Big Ideas Deficit

"We do big things," President Obama said in his State of the Union address in January. He was referring to the potential of the United States to take on grand challenges and succeed against seemingly impossible odds. He even referred to the present as "our generation's Sputnik moment." Yet since then, the White House and Congress have been locked in a battle that suggests just the opposite -- that this is a time for narrowing our national ambitions. A relentless focus on deficits has relegated big things to the rear view mirror.

President Obama invoked the Space Race because it is the modern case study of presidential rhetoric spurring action that changed the world. Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy delivered a speech before a rare joint session of Congress that called for a human mission to the moon before 1970: "... this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

This was the crest of the wave that had begun to grow nearly four years earlier with Sputnik. The Soviet Union had bested the United States by putting the first satellite in orbit, and it went on to succeed at a string of firsts: the first animal in space, first man, first woman, first multi-person crew, first lunar orbit by a spacecraft.

But the commitment made by President Kennedy unleashed a massive national effort that engaged the best talent in government, industry and academia. At its brief peak in the mid-1960s, the space program accounted for 4 cents of every federal dollar spent. (It's now a little more than half a penny of every dollar.) Eventually the tide turned, and by the second half of the decade, the United States had surpassed the Soviets.

Few people remember today that in the same speech, Kennedy also called for increased funding for weather and communications satellites, investments that provided the foundation for both the communications revolution and the exponential advances in our understanding of the Earth's atmosphere. The next time you check the weather on your cell phone, thank President Kennedy.

Today's minimalists will cluck that it's all well and good to recall the glory days, but our country is in deep trouble and it's time to trim our sails. To those who doubt that we can grow our way out of the present crisis, it's worth bearing in mind what Abraham Lincoln did in 1862, amid uncertainty that is almost unimaginable today. At a moment when the Civil War threatened to destroy the union altogether, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railways Act, which committed the government to aid in the construction of a railroad from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean "for postal, military, and other purposes." Even when the war was going horrendously, Lincoln did not shrink his vision of the future. He doubled down, recognizing that there was a role for government to invest in grand challenges that could transform the nation.

President Obama has expressed an appetite for the big play. His State of the Union focused on clean energy technology, which is the right goal at a time when our growing dependence on foreign oil bolsters regimes that don't share our interests or values. He spoke in broad strokes but did not clearly articulate a vision of success. His reluctance to talk specifics was no doubt a political calculation given the results of the midterm elections and the intransigence he has met from Republicans at every turn. But caution did not get us to the moon, create the transcontinental railroad, split the atom or complete the Panama Canal.

Again, President Kennedy's rhetoric is instructive. Kennedy did not simply call on our government to do the job -- he made the moon mission the responsibility of every American:

"... I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year."

The Sputnik moment for clean energy has not passed, and if reelected, President Obama may have another opportunity to do a big thing or two. If he does, he needs to challenge the American people to think big in the same spirit that President Kennedy did fifty years ago.