So much for the Sputnik moment

Less than three months ago, President Obama attempted to recast the political debate to support his vision of federal “investments” after watching his party suffer the worst midterm loss in the House in more than 60 years.  In his State of the Union speech, Obama called this a “Sputnik moment” that called Americans to action, a call that moved … well, no one, really.  Instead, Politico’s Abby Phillip writes that the spending-cut momentum seems to have steamrolled Obama, leaving him to fall back to the defensive, and not playing that terribly well either:

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Obama said in January. “We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to outinnovate, outeducate and outbuild the rest of the world.”

But in recent weeks, Republicans have shifted the conversation in an entirely different direction. Instead of talking about small increases to select programs, Washington is preoccupied with preserving existing programs from cuts at every turn.

As Obama celebrated the budget compromise he struck with Republicans, the soaring Sputnik rhetoric had vanished. Instead, he emphasized programs that Democrats had “protected” from GOP cuts.

“Beginning to live within our means is the only way to protect those investments that will help America compete for new jobs,” Obama said last week. “We protected the investments we need to win the future.”

As it turns out, the country did face a Sputnik moment, one Obama has completely misread. What galvanized Americans into the space race wasn’t a desire to shoot bright, shiny objects into space, but to protect ourselves from what appeared to be an existential danger of having the Soviets control the air over our country.  John Kennedy gave Americans a clear goal and a clear timeline for us to declare victory in this new frontier (to borrow a Kennedy phrase from another context), walking on the moon, which indicated clear control of our security as well as the superiority of free markets and free people.

America faces another existential threat to our way of life, only this time we ourselves are the threat.  We have overspent for decades on sweeping social programs that have underdelivered.  These programs were built on the backs of future generations, and while we enjoyed rapid population expansion and lower life expectancies, the bill seemed like it would never come due.  Now we have politicians who only know how to get elected by promising more spending, a federal government that can’t manage its own affairs, and as much as $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities, a number that may as well be a bazillion for all the reality it represents.

That’s the Sputnik moment, and Obama keeps proving he doesn’t understand it.  He wants to offer only enough cuts to make his “investment” argument, but that approach doesn’t deal realistically with the scope of the problem that is bearing down upon us.  This government needs fundamental and serious changes, and Obama’s Sputnik response is simply unserious.  He’s looking for bright, shiny objects in the sky while the financial underpinnings of the US face collapse.