I’ll tell you what, by the end of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, I was feeling a little bit, a little bit, what? Incited? Motivated? Inspired? It’s hard to know exactly what it was I felt, because it didn’t last long.
No doubt, the President did his best to seize his own personal Sputnik moment, trying to regain what he had in 2008, before the health-care debate, the bank-reform debate, before the rowdy tea-party movement, before the mid-term elections. It was a good speech, as these speeches go. Obama’s biggest gift is his oration, and this is the ideal setting to show off that skill.
The idea of building, or rebuilding, the nation to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, or however he phrased it, is nice enough, and there’s certainly nothing wrong about it. Dennis Gartman, who edits and publishes the Gartman Letter, said it was “a speech that the high school speech teachers around the country might grade decently, giving it a “B+” perhaps, but only because the student in question had always done good work in the past and deserved at least the benefit of the doubt.”
Obama’s focus on the “Sputnik moment” (or whatever speechwriter focused on it, actually; look, we’re writers here, we like to give writers credit,) actually strikes upon a point I’ve made in the past: that our eras of growth, real, solid growth, have always have some fundamental thing to spark them. Today we lack that thing, which is why the economy seems to be just drifting along.
But that wasn’t the President’s point. By choosing Sputnik as his metaphor, what he was saying is that a metaphorical Soviet Union — the Chinese, the Indians, the entire developing world, the Jersey Shore cast, whomever — is storming our gates. It’s a good metaphor, but it misses the point. It misses our real Sputnik moment.
Sputnik is a powerful metaphor, because it not only sparked a decade-plus worth of activity and innovation that culminated in Neil Armstrong historically putting his boot down on the lunar surface, but the reaction to the launch was part and parcel with the Red Scare that had been part of the national psyche in various forms for decades, the most infamous iteration of which were the McCarthy Hearings.
The main point I want to make is that there is always that fundamental thing driving economic growth, and right now i don’t see that thing out there. The President was trying to coax it out, or just flat-out create it. He was trying to find a source, a focus for all the ills that are still, more than three years after the recession started, plaguing us.
By citing Sputnik, by coyly referencing the Soviets and the Red Scare, what he was saying was twofold: one, the nation is at a moment of mortal peril, and, two, the nation is at a moment of mortal peril because of some outside influence. Maybe he didn’t consciously mean that. But that’s the real implication of choosing Sputnik as the metaphor for our current state of affairs.
The President didn’t of course blame the Chinese for our problems, but his main message was that we’re in a battle with the rest of the world for our very livelihoods. And I thought it was very telling toward the end, where he was extolling the benefits of democracy and taking shots at some other, unspecified nations. “Some countries don’t have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed. If they don’t want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn’t get written.”
Sounds an awful lot like China to me.
But China isn’t the cause of our problems. We are the cause of our problems. Or rather, the military-industrial-financial-corporate-political complex that has concentrated power and wealth into the hands of the very few at the great expense of the many, a process that’s been going on for decades, papered over with cheap, easy credit, and which was nearly invisible until the whole thing unraveled in the Panic of 2008.
The President didn’t have much to say about that “moment.”
(Photo: wikimedia commons)