Winning the future

State of the Union addresses often have an unfortunate kitchen sink quality, in which presidents seek to pack as many disparate policy ideas as possible into their allotted hour before Congress and the nation in hopes of ticking the boxes important to every constituency. For the most part, President Obama admirably avoided that, speaking past the political tit-for-tat and focusing on the overarching question of our times: How will America compete and win an increasingly global economy? How can we move beyond the recession to a new era of prosperity? How can we guarantee the American promise that our children's lives will be better than our own?

If there was a rhetorical fault in his presentation, it was in conveying the sense of urgency America faces. He said we face a "Sputnik moment" of our times, but the evidence he offered — that China now has the world's largest solar energy research facility and the worlds' fastest computer — lacked the drama of the Soviets launching the world's first man-made satellite. But perhaps at a time of stubborn unemployment and uncertainty, that is a case the American public needed little help making.

The crucial section of the speech was the president's effort to lay a three-pronged groundwork for his goal to "win the future," that America should out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world. The president proposed renewed investments in research and development, particularly in renewable, clean fuels, to be paid for by eliminating tax breaks for oil companies. He emphasized the need for parents and communities to take responsibility for children's education but also promised that his administration's aggressive education reform competition, Race to the Top, would be the backbone of a an effort to ensure failing schools turn around and excellent teachers stand in front of every classroom. He pitched the need for investments in high speed rail and high speed Internet service.

After the president's speech and the Republican response, it appears that the flash point in the ideological battle in Washington will be a war of words. Does the president's agenda amount to "investment" in making America more competitive, as he repeatedly suggested, or is it "spending," as the Republicans have it, by which they want Americans to hear "wasting." This sounds like a political game of semantic spin, along the lines of the debate over whether to call it the estate tax or the death tax. But there is a real distinction here.

Some government expenditures should count as investments, in that they pay great dividends years in the future. The interstate highway system, the nation's system of public schools and universities, the telecommunications network, airports, seaports, bridges, canals — they are all properly thought of as investments. Not everything government does falls into that category, but the government can make investments that the private sector cannot or will not but which are crucial to national success.

The key is whether those investments are held to rigorous standards, and the president has a strong case to make that he is willing to do that. His education reforms have been much longer on accountability than funding. He has proposed judging infrastructure projects based on their contribution to our economic goals, not to political ones. And in his speech, Mr. Obama promised to veto any bills that contain earmarks.

The president further tied goals of simplifying and lowering the corporate tax, reforming the individual income tax, restructuring the federal government, overhauling the regulatory system and reducing the deficit into the effort to make America more competitive. He spent little time on the battles that consumed his first two years in office — notably, he didn't mention health care reform until the 45-minute mark, and then only to offer Republicans the chance to work with him to fix its flaws but otherwise to move on to the business of reframing our economy.

The most effective moments were those when the president distilled the nation's collective goal to the work, drive and sacrifice that will be required of individuals. He said America's story is one in which people succeed because they dare to dream, that "our destiny remains our choice."

When the spectacle of members of Congress of both parties sitting together in honor of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords fades and the debates resume, the president can only hope that the American people see in his vision an opportunity to fulfill those dreams.

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