How can we “win the future,” as President Barack Obama exhorted us to do in his 2011 State of the Union address, when our top elected official remains so drearily stuck in the past? And despite the commanding role of what can only be called Sputnik nostalgia in his speech, Obama was not even channeling the distant past in his remarks.
Instead, he served up the equivalent of a microwaved reheating of the sentiments of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. That’s some sort of groovy, space-age technological feat, for sure, but we shouldn’t confuse left-over platitudes about cutting wasteful spending on the one hand while ramping up publicly funded “investment” on the other for a healthy meal.
With an unacknowledged debt to the long-running reality show Survivor (“Outwit, Outplay, Outlast”), Obama insisted that we must “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Which is to say, he sounded exactly like Bush 43, albeit with more open references to China and endless plugs for high-speed rail.
Here’s Bush in 2004:
I propose a series of measures called Jobs for the 21st Century. This program will provide extra help to middle and high school students who fall behind in reading and math, expand advanced placement programs in low income schools, invite math and science professionals from the private sector to teach part-time in our high schools. I propose larger Pell grants for students who prepare for college with demanding courses in high school. I propose increasing our support for America’s fine community colleges, so they can — I do so, so they can train workers for industries that are creating the most new jobs.
Here’s more Bush, this time from 2007:
I propose to double the Federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years. This funding will support the work of America’s most creative minds as they explore promising areas such as nanotechnology, supercomputing, and alternative energy sources…I propose to make permanent the research and development tax credit to encourage bolder private-sector initiatives in technology. With more research in both the public and private sectors, we will improve our quality of life and ensure that America will lead the world in opportunity and innovation for decades to come.
And again in 2008:
Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions. Let us increase the use of renewable power and emissions-free nuclear power. Let us continue investing in advanced battery technology and renewable fuels to power the cars and trucks of the future. Let us create a new international clean technology fund, which will help developing nations like India and China make greater use of clean energy sources.
Any of that could have fit into last night’s speech, which was chockful of statement like this one:
We have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts.
It’s not just the construction industry Obama wants to “redouble.” We must spend more on high-speed rail, wireless capacity, access to higher education, and funds for K-12 schooling as well. And on re-“revitalizing” NATO and our commitments abroad (even as we bring the boys home from Iraq and Afghanistan). We must, says the president who bragged about giving a monkey-gland shot to a Cold War alliance, commit to “a new level of engagement in our foreign affairs.”
“We do big things,” Obama said to applause. And to paraphrase Spider-Man comics, with big things come big bar tabs. Here’s a summary of major areas of spending growth at the federal level over the past decade:
|Billions of real 2005 dollars|
|Government Function||2000 Level||2010 Level||10 yr % Inc.|
|Science, space and technology||22.1||29.4||33.0%|
|Natural resources and environment||29.7||40.2||35.4%|
Source: Veronique de Rugy based on Figures sourced from OMB, Historical Tables, Table 8.8