A Script for 'Sputnik'

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, January 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Script for 'Sputnik'


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Alter

Obama's State of the Union challenge.

Barack Obama is coming off the most historic legislative achievements since Lyndon Johnson, but politics is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. The president needs to begin charting a new course now for the nation. Notice how I didn't say "for the world." Global leadership is essential, but our preeminent challenge today is national.

Obama said recently that we're in a "sputnik moment," which was a reference to the shock experienced in the United States when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space on Oct. 4, 1957. I know the date by heart because I was born two days later. My Russian-born grandmother joked that my middle name should be Sputnik, but she didn't spread the idea around too loudly at the peak of the Cold War.

Sputnik had two, connected consequences for the United States, both of them essential for the world we now live in. In 1958 Congress established NASA, which led not only to men on the moon, but also to huge breakthroughs in computers and building materials. The same year lawmakers passed the National Defense Education Act, which increased federal investment in education nearly sixfold. That a seemingly backward country like the Soviet Union could beat us in math and science made technological innovation and American education into national-security issues.

And so they are again, with a few twists. Nowadays the competition is more economic than military. The rise of China is a slow-motion sputnik, and we've long been more inept at confronting distant challenges than immediate threats (see climate change). But our economic challenge isn't distant. There's nothing slo-mo about 10 percent unemployment and a hollowed-out middle class. There's nothing hypothetical about slipping behind our competitors in math and science. We already have.

Fortunately, we have a president with the rhetorical skills to rouse us. Unfortunately, he hasn't so far. Obama's biggest mistake in his first two years was that he took Mario Cuomo's famous dictum--"you campaign in poetry and govern in prose"--too much to heart. To succeed, he needs to govern in poetry, too. He needs to use the music of his voice to sell math and science and engineering and entrepreneurship and all the other skill sets we let deteriorate when our brightest college graduates went to work on Wall Street.

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A Script for 'Sputnik'
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