The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our generation’s ‘Sputnik moment’ has finally arrived

President Biden delivers remarks on the administration's coronavirus response outside the White House on Tuesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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Ten years ago, during his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama invoked the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of a satellite called Sputnik to make the case for massive public investment to retool the economy. The Russians beat us into space, he noted, but we beat them to the moon by spending heavily and unleashing innovation. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Obama declared.

The analogy failed to enter orbit. It was an age of austerity: Republicans had just taken control of the House; Democratic leaders genuinely feared deficits; and sequestration slashed discretionary spending. More important, there was no foreign foil scary enough to break the partisan fever: Obama was trying to “reset” relations with Russia, and he’d often say the United States “welcomes the rise of China.” He soon abandoned the “Sputnik moment” catchphrase.

But this may be President Biden’s chance to seize a Sputnik moment in a way that Obama never managed. With his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, Biden has an opportunity to galvanize Americans to support his ambitious agenda, especially infrastructure investment, by highlighting the national imperative to come together to compete with a rising China.

Sputnik has been in the news again this year because Russia named its coronavirus vaccine after the 64-year-old triumph, but Biden knows Beijing has supplanted Moscow as Washington’s primary adversary. Biden, who served in the Senate during the final two decades of the Cold War, understands the motivating and organizing power of superpower rivalries. His predecessor showed how competition with the common foe of China can trump partisan politics.

Post Opinions columnists will offer real-time commentary on Biden’s speech to Congress. Follow along with their conversation starting at 8:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Every day brings chilling illustrations of the Chinese Communist Party’s hostility to freedom and its threat to the U.S.-led, rules-based international order. The regime harasses Taiwan, clamps down on Hong Kong and commits crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. When Beijing-born Chloé Zhao won the Oscar for best director on Sunday, the Chinese government censored the news and blocked social media conversations because Zhao had pointed out there are “lies everywhere” in China during a 2013 interview.

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A new dystopian novel, “2034,” imagines World War III breaking out after a clash in the South China Sea just 13 years from now. Retired four-star admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, and Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, tell a story in which the Chinese shut off power on the Eastern seaboard and disable state-of-the-art American aircraft because Beijing has secretly leapfrogged our technology. It’s a cautionary tale about how quickly conflict might escalate into nuclear combat if the United States allows its advantages to atrophy.

Earlier this month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a quadrennial “Global Trends” report to forecast what the world could look like in 2040. The report anticipates geopolitics becoming more conflict-prone and increasingly shaped by the rivalry between China and the United States. The document, prepared by the National Intelligence Council, outlines five potential scenarios. The happiest is a “renaissance of democracies.” The bleakest is “tragedy and mobilization,” with the United States essentially overtaken.

It’s a sobering read, but the authors conclude with a reminder that the forces shaping the world “are not fixed in perpetuity.” If the United States can adapt, harness new technologies to boost economic growth and forge some kind of social consensus, we can win the future.

Thankfully, the septuagenarian in the Oval Office seems clear-eyed about this. During his first presidential news conference last month, Biden cited Beijing to make the case for investing in American workers. He promised not to let China become the world’s largest economy or most powerful military on his watch, but he framed the clash as bigger than one country. “Your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded,” the president predicted, “autocracy or democracy.”

This message merits repetition and elaboration. Biden can invoke China when he addresses Congress, for instance, to explain why infrastructure means more than roads and bridges. Republicans and Democrats have expressed bipartisan support for increasing science funding and onshoring parts of the supply chain for critical technology that have drifted into China’s orbit, embracing what not long ago was derisively dismissed as industrial policy.

Just as President Dwight D. Eisenhower used Sputnik to build support for his agenda, which included the interstate highway system, beating Beijing requires Biden to rally support for expanding broadband, 5G, semiconductors, electric cars, artificial intelligence and so much more. A decade after Obama tried to summon Americans, that Sputnik moment may have finally arrived.

Read more:

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Marc A. Thiessen: The address to Congress that Biden should give — but won’t

Max Boot: Trump’s first 100 days were sheer craziness. Biden’s are sheer competence.

Catherine Rampell: Republicans make Biden an infrastructure offer he has to refuse

Eugene Robinson: Biden’s biggest accomplishment is returning sanity to the White House