Obama’s Sputnik moment

As President Obama addressed the nation on Tuesday evening I was in a dark, crowded room peering through one-way glass at a group of voters from the real America — citizens who live outside the Beltway and spend very little time paying attention to our insular world here in the nation’s capital. The 30-some focus group attendees I listened to that night sounded many of the same themes the president was giving voice to in his speech to the Congress.

These folks were not gathered to talk about the State of the Union — they had other concerns to address on Tuesday evening. But they were in sync with the president on one subject. Whether Tea Party activists or lifelong Democrats, their primary concern was getting America growing again. Democrats and independents — young and old alike — have become a little weary of the rhetoric of the deficit and budget cuts. They’d heard nearly two years of that talk in the run-up to the 2010 elections and saw nothing accomplished as a result of it. “Political posturing” was their judgment of those pronouncements. 

The overwhelming concern expressed in these groups was over the economic future of the nation. These Middle Americans were concerned about the jobs that have disappeared, the homes that families have lost and the general state of the economy. But more important, they were fearful about the future — afraid that America would not recover, that the jobs would not return and that the nation would fall behind.

The groups I sat through on Tuesday were not gathered to listen to the president’s State of the Union address or to pass judgment on it. But it was clear that they and President Obama were on the same wavelength. The words they used might have been different, but the theme was the same. They are much more interested in investing for the future than in slashing the budget.

President Obama was right on message when he called on the nation to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” To these voters, that is exactly what a “Sputnik moment” is all about. When President Eisenhower rallied the nation, he did not just spur the country to win a space race with the Soviet Union. America’s approach to education, research and infrastructure changed when we woke to the image of a Soviet spacecraft circling Earth. The government investments in those sectors back in the ’50s spawned new industries, created new jobs and built an infrastructure that knitted the nation into a cohesive economic whole.

Times have changed, old industries have either changed or died, our educational performance is lagging behind other nations and Americans are waking to the fact that they could be left behind. Voters are ready to “innovate, educate and build” for the future. The president captured that yearning in his State of the Union, and I believe we will see Americans rally behind him in the months ahead. 

Americans do not like to be second-rate — and many feel that is the kind of nation we are in danger of becoming. Innovation and hard work made us the largest economic engine in the world in years past. We yearn to return to that position of pre-eminence. 

The president struck a responsive chord on Tuesday night. He spoke to a fear that has begun haunting many Americans. He painted a vision of a renewed, revitalized America with a growing economy. He was able to give us hope again, just as he did in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Now the challenge will be to deliver on that vision. Americans are still cautious and cynical about the ability of their government — in fact the willingness on the part of government — to grow strong and prosper in the 21st century. The president must devise and sell to the Congress specific programs that will begin to lead us to that goal. He has a window, now, to flesh out his vision and inspire us to become better. But it is only a window. A message can be a short-lived thing in this cluttered Information Age, and to keep it alive the president must combine that vision with concrete action. If he does that, the next two years could be the best of his presidency to date — and that, of course, will virtually guarantee that he gets another term to finish the job.

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com.