I haven’t noticed any surprising new satellites in the heavens recently. Why, then, does the president of the United States say that we are in a “Sputnik moment?” Why has that moment, now more than a half century past, been dragged out of obscurity to define the present? And why was the associated theme of American competitiveness in the world market chosen as the theme of the president’s State of the Union speech? After all, no superpower is aiming terrifying new weapons at the United States, as the Soviet Union seemed to be doing with its ballistic rockets during the cold war. As a matter of fact, even this was an illusion. The Soviet lead in rocketry almost immediately gave way to clear US superiority, although the mistaken belief in a “missile gap” persisted for years and was in fact instrumental in producing the Cuban missile crisis.
Neither does any economic event or trend seem to explain the use of this historical reference point. It’s true that the United States’s educational system is measurably slipping. It’s also true that the country’s infrastructure has decayed badly. And yes, the United States would benefit from whatever technical innovation it can bring off, just as any country would. But none of those problems, needful of attention as they are in their own right, is the chief cause of the United States’s economic doldrums—its stubborn high unemployment, its persisting housing bust, its galloping economic inequality. These were the fruit of an economic crash brought on by a misguided, corrupt, incompetent, larcenous, unregulated financial establishment. The relevant remedies are not better technology or some contemporary equivalent of sending a man to the moon. (In any case, although Obama insisted “We do big things,” he didn’t offer one.) The remedies needed are a re-regulation and reconstruction of the financial system, plus a major, Keynesian style stimulus program to create jobs and purchasing power, and so to jar the economy out of its stupor. But none of that was in Obama’s speech. On the contrary, his proposal to freeze spending for five years threatened more economic stagnation.
It seems, then, that our new “sputnik moment” is no more real than the first one. The difference is that it took a while to puncture the illusion of the original while the emptiness of the remake is immediately apparent. There’s so much Obama could have addressed but didn’t. His silence on global warming in the wake of the failure of the Senate to take up the climate bill passed by the House, was a thunderous omission. There is every reason to believe that history will severely judge the performance of the United States in the Obama era on the basis of what it did—and didn’t—do to avert this planetary catastrophe. But Obama didn’t have a word to say about it. The two wars America is waging received perfunctory treatment in the coda. And of course, there was no announcement of any further regulation or stimulus to address the continuing great recession.
But if we can’t find a substantive explanation for Obama’s choice of themes, it is otherwise with the politics of the matter. Here, a definite logic is apparent. Obama faces a resurgent Republican Party that took control of the House of Representatives in a mini-landslide. Now the Republican majority has just voted in perfect unanimous lockstep to annul his signature legislative achievement, the healthcare bill. As all the world knows by now, Obama’s response has been, in a manner of speaking, to smother his foes with love. The love goes unreturned, yet Obama persists, calling for conciliation, bipartisanship, compromise, and unity. The State of the Union address is the sole annual occasion on which all branches of the government assemble together—the perfect setting for a visual display of Obama’s political strategy. In the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the legislators had even crossed aisles to sit with one another.
What Obama needed, if he was to continue on his chosen path, was a theme that would roll through the chamber without making any waves. He needed something that the new speaker of the house, John Boehner, sitting behind him, could regularly applaud, as—though looking sleepily bored—he in fact did. Global warming? The Republicans are deniers. Growing inequality and outright poverty? A non-starter judged by this test. The two wars? Not really. But American competitive advantage in the world market filled the bill perfectly. Precisely because it was at best a secondary concern in the real world, it could produce, if only for a moment, the picture of America united, not at one another’s throats, that the administration wanted.
If that was the plan, it seems to have worked. No House Republican shouted out any insult at the President, as had happened at the last State of the Union Address. The public reportedly was contented. In one instant poll, an unreal 90 percent approved. The speech disturbed nothing and no one was disturbed.
It was a boring speech. It did not contain a single elegant or memorable phrase—and this from the man who rose to eminence and then power very much on the basis of his remarkable eloquence. Where was our golden-tongued young man of a few years ago? Obama’s poll numbers are up, but his muse has turned her back on him. Neither did the speech have any of the excitement, the neural sparks that fly, when words get traction with reality, and you feel in your bones, though it hasn’t quite happened yet, that something is actually going to happen. The coda was especially bad—a pastiche of clichés. (“The spirit that has sustained this nation for more than two centuries lives on in you, its people.”) Taking off from such a launch pad, Obama’s rhetoric, unlike Sputnik all those years ago, could not soar. How could it when its apparent purpose was to evade, not face, the prime realities that confront—and divide—our country.