Mr. President, this is not exactly a 'Sputnik moment'

The State of the Union speech revealed again that Obama wants the US to learn from its big economic competitors. That's far different from the cold-war competition with the Soviet threat.

With his constitutionally mandated report to Congress last night, President Obama has now made it official: America must become an emulation nation.

It’s no longer the “exceptional nation,” as in America’s past, or a “beacon on the hill,” the leader of the free world, or the sole superpower. It is a nation that must try to learn from its top competitors on how they are succeeding.

The more Mr. Obama has traveled overseas, the more he cites foreign lessons for Americans to follow. His State of the Union message summed up this call by claiming the US is now in a “Sputnik moment.” In his interpretation, that means a need for America to innovate and invest its way back to prosperity.

But that historical comparison isn’t quite accurate. The Soviet Union’s surprise missile leap in 1957 was seen back then as more of a military threat that required US dominance in space and missiles. NASA and the moon landing provided spinoffs to the economy, but Sputnik was mainly a cold-war call to arms.

Rather, Obama’s main point may be to draw positive economic lessons from rising powers like China, Japan, Germany, India, or South Korea. Not since the 19th century, when Americans looked so much to Europe as a model, has a US president held up other nations as examples to match.

Read his speeches during his overseas travel and you see how much he wishes that America was more like some countries. After a recent swing through Asia, for example, he said this:

“If you want to know one reason why more companies are choosing to do their research and development in places like China and India, it’s because the United States now ranks 24th out of 38 countries in the generosity of the tax incentives we provide for research and development.” He wants the US to make it easy to patent innovations, as its big competitors do.

Obama holds up China as a model for renewable energy, high-speed trains, and research facilities. He sings praises for South Korea’s drive for advanced education. India is admired for its science institutes or the use of technology to hold officials accountable.

Even while in Indonesia, he cited that Southeast Asian nation as a model for its cultural values of tolerance and unity.

His speech Tuesday was not much different: “Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.”

In his foreign policy, Obama’s most notable shift is his admission that the US needs some time to mend its economy and restore its strength if it is to sustain its global leadership. (Call that “hibernation nation.”)

A shift by the US to learn from others helps explain Obama’s call for more spending on research, infrastructure, and education. America’s roads are crumbling and overcrowded. Industries need more incentives for technical research. And in the latest measurement on education, more than 70 percent of America’s eighth- and 12th-graders fall short on science proficiency.

Such news, combined with Obama’s often citing the economic might of other nations, could act to discourage Americans rather than motivate them. The president might do better to cite more examples of progress in America’s most innovative states, such as Massachusetts in reforming K-12 education, California in pushing clean energy, or North Carolina in driving basic research. Many states are also models for fiscal probity, balancing their budgets, or in reducing the costs of social programs to leave more money for job creation.

And within states, many regions are defining economic progress in terms of a stronger reliance on local merchants and local farmers, decoupling their livelihoods from national or global corporations. America can’t cut itself off from world trade, but there are ways, short of triggering a trade war, to boost the buying of US services and products at home.

America’s greatest economic strength, compared to its competitors, is its commitment to liberty, or the freedom to innovate and compete. Communist-run China adopted that economic model in 1979 and still hasn’t quite absorbed it with its state capitalism.

Holding up America’s historic model for its people to once again follow would be the president’s wisest move. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, sometimes you just need to be reminded that you always had the power to return to your own Kansas.

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