Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winning the future, via the present

President Obama’s widely anticipated State of the Union address turned out to be a Rashomon thing: anyone watching it could put their own spin on it: either he hit it “outta the park,” it was a ground-run double or a whiff at home plate — or anything in between. That’s not so different from other SOTU speeches in the past, including Obama’s first official address last year, or his address to a joint session of Congress in 2009.

On Tuesday, at least, no yahoo congressman from South Carolina yelled “You lie!” at the president. This year, though, the lawmakers gathered in the House Chamber, and anyone keeping score at home, might well have shouted “You paint a picture in broad strokes!”

The thrust of the 62-minute speech was meant to address the competitive posture of the United States in relation to the rest of the developing and developed world. In this much, Obama didn’t disappoint. The theme, “Winning the Future,” was clear in his stated objectives for America vis-à-vis energy independence, education and jobs, jobs and more jobs.

He used that quoted phrase, or its variants, at least a dozen times in an address that was a blueprint long on vision but short on specifics. Among the goals: By 2035, 80 percent of U.S. electricity would come from clean energy sources. Within 25 years, 80 percent of Americans would have access to high-speed rail. “For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down.”

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The presidential crystal ball got brighter: “With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. ...

“And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. ...

“Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn't just about a faster Internet and fewer dropped calls. It's about connecting every part of America to the digital age.”

Broad strokes for sure. But these ideas for “winning the future” necessarily confront dealing with the present day, and a seemingly immovable economic crisis that has the unemployment rate stuck at just under 10 percent. The how-to-get-there-from-here was less lofty and more practical, a road map that called on Americans to do their part.

“That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It's family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline. ...

“In South Korea, teachers are known as "nation builders." Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.”

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Other jobs properly fall to the Congress the president addressed. Obama called for eliminating business regulations that hampered innovation; he challenged Congress to simplify the tax code and to lower the corporate tax rate.

And he proposed that, “starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.”

There was some hope that his message would be greeted by a Congress united in achieving Obama’s lofty goals. The mix-and-match seating captured by pool cameras in the House Chamber reflected at least a willingness to abide by the cosmetic aspects of bipartisanship: Landrieu sat next to Rubio; Kerry was seatmates with John McCain; Baucus was next to Hatch.

But the president placed the prom-night visuals in the context of productiveness: “We will move forward together or not at all, for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics … What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."

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There’s a lot to do. Obama’s grand vision of the technologically possible runs headfirst into what other countries are planning, or doing, right now.

China, for example. The second largest economy in the world plans to consolidate nine cities into one, a project expected to take six years at a cost of $300 billion. This mammoth 16,000-square-mile undertaking will combine 150 separate municipal projects — water, energy, transportation, telco networks. Result: a true megalopolis 26 times the size of greater London. An express rail line to Hong Kong is also planned.

And in Saudi Arabia, construction of several world-class construction projects is well along. King Abdullah Economic City, being built on the Red Sea, is a $90 billion-plus project including a seaport, resorts and a range of other services and amenities. Some parts of it are up and running now; much of the rest is set for completion by 2020.

Work’s also underway on Prince Abdulaziz Bin Mousaed Economic City, a $53 billion venture set to include centers for business, entertainment and education. The project is expected to be finished by 2025.

Both these projects, and others in various stages of development, are intended to secure employment for Saudis, residents of a nation where, according to 2010 data from the Population Reference Bureau, 43 percent of the country's 24 million people are under the age of 15.

Clearly, winning the future isn’t just an American idea.

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President Obama’s speech may have traded passion for particulars, but in this he has company. In May 1961, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy expressed the desire that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

That goal had its detractors, too. But the ones running down this president’s speech — including political personality Sarah Palin, who maligned it Wednesday on Fox News with a cheap shorthand of the three-word theme (“I thought, "OK, that acronym, spot on") — showed by default their own shortcoming of vision, even as President Obama eloquently pointed to the power of a common national objective.

“We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time,” he said Tuesday. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate and outbuild the rest of the world.”

This nation’s reach had damn well better exceed its grasp, or what’s a State of the Union for?

Image credits: Obama top: AP/Charles Dharapak. Obama II: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. Kerry and McCain: AP/Evan Vucci. China megacity map: Kennedy: via

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