The President Ignored the Elephant in the Room

Robert Reich Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The President’s new emphasis on the importance of investing in education, infrastructure, and basic research in order to build the nation’s long-term competitive capacities is appropriate. For the last three decades the federal government’s spending on these three essentials has declined as a percentage of its total spending, arguably threatening America’s technological and economic leadership.

But the President’s failure to address the decoupling of American corporate profits from American jobs, and explain specifically what he’ll do to get jobs back, not only risks making his grand plans for reviving the nation’s “competitiveness” seem somewhat beside the point but also cedes to Republicans the dominant narrative.

The address he gave last night could have been given (indeed, was given) by Democrats in the 1980s when Japan seemed to threaten America’s preeminence.   Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manifesto, “Putting People First,” laid out the case. Only now the competitive threat comes from China.

A similar call for economic patriotism and public investment emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, when the competitive threat was the Soviet Union. John F. Kennedy challenged America to get to the moon ahead of the Soviets. Before him, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower committed the nation to building the interstate highways system – forty-one thousand miles of four-lane (sometimes even six-lane) freeways to replace the old two-lane federal roads that meandered through cities and towns – in order to speed troops, tanks, and munitions across the nation in the event of war. And a National Defense Education Act to educate a generation of mathematicians and scientists to catch up with the Soviets in space.

President Obama made the parallel explicit:

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. 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.

Reviving these ideas, and the feelings they provoke, is politically astute. A call for national unity and economic patriotism places the President above partisan rancor, and gives him a rationale for a strong and effective government at a time when Republicans want nothing so much as to shrink it.