'Win the future,' Obama implores

Drawing parallels to the space race, President Obama said,
Drawing parallels to the space race, President Obama said, "We unleashed a wave of innovation." (Melina Mara)
  Enlarge Photo    
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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 in which 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."

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 that 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."

Obama's proposals - some of them left over from last year's address - included increasing math and science teacher training and investing more in developing clean-energy technology. Behind his words loomed the rising economies of Asia that present both promising new markets for American exports and sharper competition to U.S. industry in areas where the economy is likely to grow most in the coming decades.

Obama did not call for new gun legislation, as some expected he might in the wake of deadly shootings in Tucson less than three weeks earlier. Instead he referred to the rampage, which left six dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) severely wounded, as an incident that gave the nation pause because it "reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater - something more consequential than party or political preference." As Obama mentioned Giffords, cameras panned to an empty chair where Giffords would have sat, while her colleagues, wearing lapel ribbons in her honor, solemnly clapped.

Obama touched glancingly on immigration, saying it is time to allow students in the country illegally to remain. "Let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can be staffing our research labs, starting new businesses, who could be further enriching this nation," he said.

He vigorously defended his health-care overhaul. While he said he would accept minor corrections to "flaws" in the law, he drew a bright line against big changes favored by Republicans, saying "what I'm not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a preexisting condition."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company