February 1, 2011

In a speech to the National Academy of Sciences shortly after taking office, President Obama, while faced with a teetering economy, vast numbers of unemployed and uninsured, and two seemingly endless wars, nonetheless paused to embrace a vision of the future. He spoke of President Lincoln's commitment to science and innovation, even in the midst of great turmoil and uncertainty.

He said: "A few months after a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg, before Gettysburg would be won, before Richmond would fall, before the fate of the Union would be at all certain, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act creating the National Academy of Sciences. . . . Lincoln refused to accept that our nation's sole purpose was mere survival."

Lincoln was a believer in science, a believer in our capacity for innovation and the possibilities it represented. He saw our future prosperity tied to our ability, as a nation, to create. So does Obama. In many areas, the president has matched the rhetoric of his (and Lincoln's) speech with concrete action.

In April 2009, Obama created a President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which he has turned to nearly every month since to ask hard questions and demand science-based answers. He has fought for - and in a number of cases succeeded in - increasing science and new technology funding. He has appointed highly credentialed, public-spirited scientists to key agencies.

So it came as no surprise, then, that a central theme of President Obama's State of the Union address last week was the modern extension of Lincoln's commitment to science and innovation and of his insistence that we add "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius."

Cars that can run on sunlight and water. A million electric cars on the road by 2015. High-speed rail. A faster, more accessible Internet. Renewable technologies paid for by eliminating subsidies to oil and gas companies. These, all mentioned by the president in his address, are just a small sampling of what awaits an America that rededicates itself to scientific pursuit over the next decade.

The goal - "to win the future" as the president put it - is, indeed, a worthy one, especially when you consider how poorly we have handled the recent past. Largely because of trade policies that place profits ahead of working people, more than 40,000 factories have been shuttered in less than a decade. Meanwhile, American 15-year-olds rank 25th in the world in math, and 21st in science, and we are haunted by a skills shortage that makes it harder to compete. All the while, we spent the better part of a decade with a president who scorned science, and a federal government that always let politics trump scientific progress.

But while Lincoln was committing himself to the advancement of science and innovation, he remained focused on ending the nation's more immediate and immobilizing crises. President Obama must do the same; it is today's job market, not tomorrow's, and the victims of our historic chasm between great wealth and deep poverty, that deserve his primary focus now.

We live in a country with nearly 15 million unemployed, and many millions more underemployed. A country where job creation can barely keep pace with population growth, where for a staggering number of people, the pain of recession continues without any real relief. These are people who cannot wait for a decade-long economic transformation; they need relief - and jobs - now.

And yet, with more Americans now mired in poverty than at any time in the last 40 years - a record 47 million - the president did not include a single mention of poverty or the plight of the poor in his speech.

Ironically, Republican Paul Ryan's response did acknowledge that government still has the responsibility "to help provide a safety net for those who cannot provide for themselves." Of course, the programs that the most vulnerable depend on are the very ones that Ryan, new chairman of the House Budget Committee, has committed to defund and dismantle.

That Obama was silent on poverty is troubling. But the real challenge for Obama, who through his work as a community organizer has seen poverty as close up as any president, will come when Ryan and his reactionary colleagues pass a budget in the House. It will be in that moment that the president will have to stand and fight to preserve the safety net, to defend those who may never see the benefit of a retooled economy.

Obama could bury the word "stimulus" but still find innovative initiatives (such as a National Infrastructure Bank or large-scale public-private partnerships) to prop up cities and states and frugal pension funds. And he could push for a 21st-century Works Progress Administration-style program, one that would give those able and willing to work the stability - and dignity - of employment.

Lincoln said that "the legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves - in their separate, and individual capacities."

The president must remember that there are some things that need to be done now, things that no leap of science of technological innovation can cure.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation. She writes a weekly online column for The Post.