Tuesday, January 25, 2011

State of the ‘Sputnik moment’


If a visual sampling of the on-air patter and body language of the cable pundits is any indication, there’s an anticipation about tonight’s State of the Union Address, President Obama’s second, that’s bordering on the electric, a giddiness approaching the excitement preceding a Spectacle.

Step right up, y’all. Tonight’s gonna be a good night. Yeah, tonight’s gonna be a good good night at the House of Representatives! It’s the State of the Union 2011, featuring the new congressional Kum Ba Yah seating chart. Democrat Schumer sits with Republican Coburn! Casey with Toomey! Gillibrand with Thune! This is a way bigger deal than lions crouching with lambs! Your master of ceremonies … President Obama!

But two things are back of all the stagecraft: the need to begin to seriously address the nation’s employment woes and to restore the footing of the United States as a global economic power; and the fact that, certainly for the first time since the November elections, and maybe stretching back further than that, the political winds are strongly, even close to powerfully, at the president’s back.

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Rhetorical Job #1 tonight for the president will be selling a vision to improve the domestic economy. To go by excerpts from the speech, they’ll included a proposal for a five year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, part of a wider plan to reduce the soaring national deficit.

Former White House adviser Stuart Eizenstat, in Davos for the World Economic Forum, told Bloomberg News this morning that the gist of Obama’s message would likely reflect “a move to the center,” politically speaking and, more widely, a focus on “competitiveness in the world and jobs at home.”

This time out, President Obama is playing his cards against his chest. To this point, there’s been little of the speech to cherry-pick through ahead of time; White House reporters apparently won’t get the usual (and customary) embargoed copies beforehand, at least not yet. But we know from the excerpts available right now (subject to change) that Obama means to sound the broad themes of a need for economic revival and a call to the new congressional majority in the House to work with him from the beginning.

At stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world. We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.

But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise. By the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children. That’s the project the American people want us to work on. Together.

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 there yet. NASA didn’t even 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.


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President Obama also seems poised to capitalize on the rare and stirring bipartisan reaction to his address in Tucson after the shootings of Jan. 8. That veritable love feast amid conservatives — everyone from Charles Krauthammer to Brit Hume to The Weekly Standard gave him high marks —positions him well to take the lectern in the House tonight secure in the knowledge that some folks on the other side wish him well.

Tom Coburn, for example. The Tennessee Republican senator put the call for unity into a perspective that goes beyond who sits where in the People’s House. “Our problems are so great and so urgent, we can’t get hung up on party labels,” Coburn said in an interview this morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Candor like that underscores how much there is to be done, and suggests, for the first time in two years, there may finally be the start of a common congressional will to do it.

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The latest polls suggest that the American people are behind the administration. The new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll finds 55 percent of Americans favor the president’s job performance. A Bloomberg News poll finds that 53 percent of investors have a favorable view of his job performance.

That upbeat feeling is still one of our more reliable exports. Eizenstat expects the SOTU address to be widely watched in Davos tonight, an indicator of the global understanding that, despite its challenges, the United States remains an indelible presence.

“The president’s own popularity at home, which has risen substantially, will translate into more influence here,” he told Bloomberg. “Clearly the world is changing; there is a new world order. But militarily, politically, diplomatically and economically, it still is the principal power in the world, and everyone knows that ...”

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Domestically, there’s a feeling — especially in the wake of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six people in Tucson — that the unity visibly represented by a commingling on the House floor might actually become part of the process of lawmaking, that maybe there’ll be some progress on what matters to Americans before the Frankenstein of partisan politics is fully reanimated.

Whatever Jared Lee Loughner’s motives were on Jan. 8, however unrelated they might be to politics, the attacks in Tucson were a galvanizing national event, and a sobering reminder of the potential for disagreement to morph into hate, for rhetoric to metastasize to violence.

We’ve tried to cross that ethical Rubicon before in our history. As even a casual student of that history knows, it’s got a vicious undertow.

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“Interpersonal relationships and reconciliation are the key to almost everything in life,” Coburn said this morning, in as frank a concession of the need for productive bipartisanship as we’ve observed from the Job-1-defeat-Obama Republicans in a while. We’ll see. For now, things feels good, or at least better. Maybe they’re even beginning to feel possible. Just look at one of the variant covers of Archie Comics #617, due out tomorrow. The president and political personality Sarah Palin find common ground in Riverdale.

Some things may be too much to expect all at once. Late word is that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi won’t sit next to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But tonight President Obama will take a big first step toward reframing the national debate, and refocusing the energies of the Congress, on competitiveness and restoring a battered economy. And doing it together.

Coburn, for one, is apparently fully on board. “There’s not a problem in front of us we can’t solve.” he said this morning — and if that sounds vaguely familiar, you’re right.

Bill Clinton said much the same thing — “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America” — at his inaugural in January 1993.

Image credits: Obama: via MSNBC. Sputnik replica: NASA (public domain). Coburn: public domain. Obama favorability trend table: Marist Poll. Archie #617 variant cover: Archie Comics.

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