The Right Priorities

Obama’s State of the Union Speech Frames Coming Budget Debate

The president’s State of the Union speech aimed to spark our nation’s famed competitiveness in areas most ripe for sustained jobs growth. The blueprint must be equally compelling.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 25, 2011. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 25, 2011. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech last night can be best encapsulated by his call for 2011 to be “our generation’s Sputnik moment”—an opportunity to demonstrate anew our nation’s fiery competitiveness amid adversity, relying on American workers and entrepreneurs, business and university leaders, scientists and engineers to get it done with the help of carefully chosen government investments and shared sacrifice to reduce our federal budget deficit. Now the debate begins in Congress and across our nation over how to seize this moment.

Let’s begin by recognizing the president is crystal clear about the challenge. Not since the Soviet Union shocked America out of its post-WWII complacency in the 1950s by leaping ahead of us in the space race has our nation faced graver threats to our innovation-led global economic dominance. Then as now, we remain the world’s largest and most dynamic economy, but then as now our competitors are finding new ways to race ahead of us—at times leveraging our very strengths and our global sacrifices to their considerable advantage.

The Center for American Progress is now deep into developing an array of progressive policy priorities to meet these new challenges. We understand why the president singled out China as perhaps our nation’s top competitive challenge. We are at the forefront of his call to reform our primary and secondary schools to prepare our children for the demands of the 21st century; and to ensure our universities, colleges, and community colleges create the cutting-edge ideas, products, and services that their graduates can turn into our nation’s next innovation breakthroughs. And we have long supported investments in our nation’s critical infrastructure to maintain our economic edge and create this century’s leading clean energy economy to end our dependence on foreign oil.

Similarly, the Center is prepped and ready to shape the debate over how to reduce federal spending fairly, efficiently, and effectively. We have clear and concise proposals on how to set our fiscal house in order, and are developing concrete plans to help the president restructure the federal government to ensure results, making sure we are “doing what works” in all government programs and jettisoning the rest. And we’ve spent a lot of time and effort understanding how to reshape our military spending to get the most bang for the buck to keep our country safe.

Conservative responses to President Obama’s call to meet the challenges of “our Sputnik moment,” and to the progressive priorities that his administration and the Center for American Progress champion, are sadly short on specifics and focused solely on only one part of the challenge facing our country. Their answer to everything is debt reduction, more debt reduction, and even more debt reduction—without any real thought to our future economic competitiveness. All of these plans ignore the need for targeted investment in key innovation arenas such as clean energy commercialization and future productivity growth.

What’s worse, the conservative game plan in the coming weeks as the Obama administration and Congress grapple in earnest with the annual federal budget takes into account not at all the need to create sustainable jobs now and in the future. As our colleagues at the Center for American Progress Action Fund note, conservative debt-reduction visions (they are hardly plans yet) would set our future competitiveness back sharply.

The Center will examine in detail conservative deficit-reduction proposals in the coming weeks as they are forced to get specific about their proposed cuts. And we will compare them directly with our specific proposals to demonstrate which vision of America’s future prosperity is more likely to meet the challenges outlined by the president last night, and which course is more affordable for American taxpayers to bear now and in the future. Watch this space.

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