By Jingo, Obama Was Not Fear-Mongering in the SOTU

by Andrew Sprung

In my last post, I celebrated the contrast between the potentially world-ending U.S.--Soviet rivalry that JFK evoked in his inaugural address and  more sublimated economic competition to which President Obama called the nation in his State of the Union address last week. After drafting the post, I came across The Economist's Lexington column, which cast Obama's call for a "Sputnik moment" as a bit of cheap jingoism:

You could argue that to invoke Sputnik is merely to say that America needs to wake up and take remedial action. But harking back to Sputnik is hardly consistent with "friendly competition". And where is the point in stoking up fear of China if Americans cannot agree on what to do about it? It may have seemed obvious after Sputnik that America should make a big public investment in technology. No similar consensus applies today.

This response strikes me as tone-deaf, though I must confess to having been sympathetically attuned to Obama's rhetoric  (with some exceptions) since I started listening to him in back in 2007. While Obama did indulge in a bit of competitive chauvinism in the SOTU, judge for yourself whether he was "stoking up fear of China":

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there's an Internet connection. 

 Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became the home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer. 

So, yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn't discourage us. It should challenge us....

And now it's our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. (Applause.) We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government...

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 would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. 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. 

This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -- (applause) -- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Note that the source of challenge is diffused -- split, as it were, between India, China, the world at large and the Soviet memory. In fact, taking up Lexington's last point -- that the U.S. today lacks a consensus for public investment in technology (and education, and infrastructure), I would argue that the lack of consensus is precisely the point. The unspoken threat evoked by the speech, for all the talk of bipartisan cooperation, is Republican opposition to the kind of public investments that Obama presents as our seed corn, and to the taxes needed to fund them.  Obama aims to regenerate consensus by conjuring up the ghost of Republican parties past that accepted the need for the kind of public investment he calls for -- not to mention Romneycare-style health reform, stimulus spending in the face of severe recession, and yes, raising taxes when deficits spun out of control. 

One final point: while the current rivalry with China raises only a faint echo thus far of the fraught military competition with the Soviet Union, China is obviously a more potent economic rival than the Soviet Union ever was, or was likely to be.  In an odd way, the U.S. competitive position is the inverse of that framed by George Kennan when he defined the doctrine of containment. Kennan looked forward presciently to the Soviet Union's economic collapse if it could be stopped from expanding territorially.  We look ahead now to China's all-but-inevitable emergence as the world's largest economy, provided there is no catastrophic interruption.  The president is right to raise the alarm about our future prosperity in a world where we are no longer the world's economic behemoth, even as he repeats the mantra, "we do not seek to contain China's rise."

If you like poring over speeches: my night-of take on the SOTU is here.

Andrew Sprung, a media consultant and student of rhetoric, blogs at xpostfactoid.blogspot.com

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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