Globe Editorial

Obama’s stark, bold challenge: rise to this ‘Sputnik moment’

January 26, 2011

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THE CHALLENGE that President Obama posed last night is essentially this: Move aggressively to develop renewable energy, improve schools, rebuild infrastructure, and rein in spending on entitlements, or be consigned to an ever-diminishing share of the world’s economic bounty.

It’s that stark and bracingly simple.

Obama’s State of the Union speech was refreshingly free of the usual empty vows to rebuild dead factories, to miraculously best overseas competitors simply by being Americans. It dared to suggest that India and China and South Korea and other nations are doing impressive things with their own economies, and will be forceful competitors. It dared to hint that the United States could well fail — if it can’t rise to what Obama called a “Sputnik moment.’’

That’s the kind of straight talk that should build confidence in people in economically struggling corners of Massachusetts and other states from which old-line manufacturing jobs have fled. Those jobs won’t come back. But with a real commitment to education and to rebuilding the economic landscape — from roads and bridges to the tax code — and to investing in the most promising industries, such as renewable energy, people in those places and all across the country will get better jobs and have better futures.

Those investments must be made. And Obama’s speech was courageous in another way: By daring to suggest that further efforts to rein in Medicare and Medicaid spending, and to stabilize Social Security, are the key to erasing the long-term deficit. He praised the work of his fiscal commission — a code for saying the solution lies in a combined approach of retooling benefit and tax formulas to curb spending and increase revenues. Proposing any changes in entitlements is political poison; the politically powerful elderly flock to the opposing party. So this, of all Obama’s proposals, needs bipartisan attention.

Obama should have given this speech earlier in his presidency, because it validated the promise of generational change and casting aside old resentments that helped vault him over Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008. And while his first two years saw many accomplishments, many were piecemeal and suggested an understandable lurching to answer crises. Meanwhile, his greatest win, health reform, seemed oddly disconnected from the immediate problems facing many Americans.

Last night’s speech helped explain Obama’s overall intention: to reorient the economy, and the political debate, toward the reality of a fast-moving, globalized economy. This agenda is the truer progeny of his 2008 promise of hope and change.

It’s time to get on with it.