Presidents generally cover a lot of ground in their State of the Union addresses. But they really can only sound one theme—or call on the country to do one thing—without diluting their message. In his State of the Union last night, President Obama called on Americans to invest in infrastructure and clean energy technology.
President Obama called it our “Sputnik moment.” The phrase invokes the moment when the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth, made Americans realize they were falling behind technologically—an epiphany that ultimately led to the Apollo missions that put the first men on the moon. Obama used the faltering economy and fear of emerging economic powers like China and India—even though there are compelling reasons to think that economies do not compete the way corporations do—to justify massive new investments in research and infrastructure.
Presidents have called for us to invest to make America more competitive before—President Bush sounded the same theme as recently as 2006. But Obama is right that our infrastructure is crumbling and our transit system becoming overwhelmed—which is why the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO issued a statement jointly endorsing greater infrastructure spending. And Obama is right that our reliance on fossil fuels imposes not only damages the environment but hurts our economy and threatens our national security.
The question, as always, is over priorities and strategy. We can’t continue to spend more than we earn indefinitely. Obama proposed that his plan be paid for at least in part by eliminating subsidies to oil companies—which certainly don’t need the money or the incentives—and allowing the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000 to expire when they come up for renewal again in two years. And it’s certainly possible that we could eliminate wasteful spending and unproductive investments—as every government tries to do—and use the money to fund more valuable investments.
But in the official Republican response to the State of the Union, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) accused Obama of simply calling for larger government and more spending, and bringing about America’s decline. But Ryan doesn’t offer many specifics of his own and certainly doesn’t point out that his own plan involves painful cuts to Medicare. The truth is that there is an argument for investing now while the economy is weak and an argument for beginning the difficult process of cutting the budget now. But it will be hard to do everything we might want to do. The speech last night—and the responses to it—were only his first attempts to frame debate that will define the next two years.
Photo credit: Pete Souza