State of the Union 2011: 'Win the future,' Obama says

Obama cited Sputnik and the Space Race as moments that inspired American innovation in the State of the Union.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 10:04 AM

President Obama sought to rouse the nation from complacency in his State of the Union address Tuesday, urging innovation and budget reforms that he said are vital to keep the United States a leader in an increasingly competitive world.

"Sustaining the American dream has never been about standing pat," Obama said. "It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age. Now it's our turn."

Obama repeatedly declared the imperative to "win the future," comparing the current need for innovation to the space race against the Soviet Union in the 1950s and '60s. Calling for more dedication to research and technology as he raised the specter of a rapidly growing China and India, Obama declared: "This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

Speaking less than three months after his party's defeat in the midterm elections, Obama struck notes of optimism and conciliation in an address that spanned 62 minutes and was interrupted at least 75 times for applause. The president spoke to a House chamber where traditionally segregated Republicans and Democrats mingled, and he acknowledged the unusual seating arrangement at the outset of his speech. But, Obama said: "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."

On the morning after the speech, reaction from lawmakers and commentators mostly fell along partisan lines, with a few exceptions.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) told MSNBC that Obama's speech, while patriotic, "was combined with some very small, old, recycled ideas." Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), a likely contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, said Obama "missed a great opportunity here to take the deficit more seriously. ... He showed no leadership."

But former Vermont governor Howard Dean, a Democrat, called Obama's address "a great speech, and a great night. ... This was an outside-the-Beltway speech."

And Giuliani praised Obama's call for malpractice reform, and said he saw in the speech "opportunities for bipartisan cooperation."

Facing steep budget deficits, Obama did not call for massive new programs, instead proposing a five-year freeze in most discretionary spending and tens of billions of dollars in defense cuts. Those and other budgetary proposals, outlined previously by Obama and his advisers, were intended to give the president the upper hand in a debate over spending and the broader role of government that is likely to define the legislative year ahead and the presidential election to come.

But Obama also used the prime-time stage to combine a number of policy proposals into a blueprint for confronting growing threats to U.S. economic dominance. While he has emphasized innovation in his travels to battery factories and solar panel plants over the past year, he has never done so as explicitly as he did Tuesday before a national audience and after a year when the unemployment rate remained stuck above 9 percent.

He sought to sway his audience with rhetoric rather than specifics. He declared the country "poised for progress" with the stock markets and corporate profits on the rebound. Acknowledging the agony of workers who have seen jobs sent overseas, he admitted the "rules have changed" - and must be reckoned with through innovation and education.

"Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist," he said. "But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs."

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