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State of the Union: Obama Calls Investment in Innovation 'Our Sputnik Moment'

4 years ago
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President Obama outlined an ambitious plan Tuesday to "win the future," urging renewed investment in American technology, infrastructure and education, while simultaneously calling for a more streamlined federal government and a reduction of the deficit.

In his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress -- some of whose members crossed the aisle in a symbolic show of bipartisanship -- Obama emphasized a common purpose and a shared future. "We will move forward together, or not at all," he said, "for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics."

Early in his address, Obama called attention to the empty seat that would have been occupied by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely wounded during the Tucson shootings on Jan. 8.

"Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater -- something more consequential than party or political preference," he said. "We are part of the American family."

And indeed, with many Democratic and Republican lawmakers seated next to each other, Obama received several bipartisan rounds of applause and standing ovations throughout his speech.

The tenor of the address was optimistic: The president highlighted the progress the country had made since the begining of the economic downturn and reiterated his fundamental belief that America's best days are yet to come. "We are poised for progress," he said. "Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again."

Though the speech was short on specific policy proposals, Obama outlined areas where he would seek legislation in the coming year -- and which would act as core "pillars" in his upcoming fiscal year 2012 budget, which is to be released the week of February 14.

Speaking to innovation, the president called for 80 percent of America's electricity to come from clean energy sources by 2035. In a bid to move the country away from dependence on fossil fuels, he recommended an end to the nearly $4 billion in tax subsidies to oil and gas industries, and to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

In the area of education, the president voiced his support for reform measures, including the "Race to the Top" program, which he called "the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation." He called on Congress to make permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit -- which gives families up to $10,000 in credits toward four-year college tuition. (The credit was recently extended during last year's lame-duck session of Congress).

Obama also pitched the need for comprehensive immigration reform and urged lawmakers to "stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation."

The president touted investment in American infrastructure -- including high-speed rail, transit systems and a national wireless inititative -- as critical to ensuring the country remains competitive on a global stage. Citing advancements made by Chinese, Korean, European and Russian governments, Obama said, "We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, and constructed the interstate highway system."

"Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon," he said, calling for job-creating investments in biomedical research, information technology, and clean energy technology. "The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

"This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

Speaking to the concepts of reform and responsibility, Obama tackled perhaps the most contentious legislative subjects, including tax reform and the federal deficit. The president said Congress should close loopholes in the corporate tax code and use the savings to reduce the corporate tax rate -- the first such reduction in 25 years.

He pledged to streamline government -- vowing to revisit unnecessary regulations on private enterprise -- but defended the new health care reform law, saying, "Instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward."

In a bid to rein in government spending -- a core Republican priority in this year's session of Congress -- Obama called for a five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, which he said would lower the federal deficit by $400 billion over the next 10 years. He also voiced support for a plan put foward by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to cut $78 billion from the defense budget.

And Obama seemed to open the door to entitlement reform, including Social Security and Medicare, but remained opaque as to how far he would push any overhaul. "We must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities," he said. "Without slashing benefits for future generations, and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market."

And to last year's hotly debated Bush tax cuts -- which Obama reluctantly extended as part of a broader tax cut package in December -- the president urged Congress to let the cuts expire for the wealthiest 2 percent of American earners, saying the country could no longer afford such breaks.

Pledging a more transparent and streamlined government, Obama vowed to veto any bill that came to his desk with earmarks, saying, "The American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects."

Obama focused the bulk of his address on domestic concerns but also cited progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Honoring those in the military, he celebrated the repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gays from openly serving in the U.S. armed forces, and further called on colleges to allow military recruiters and the ROTC onto their campuses.

He spoke to nuclear containment, touting the recently passed New START arms control treaty with Russia and multilateral sanctions against Iran and North Korea. And he announced that his next international trip would be to the Americas -- visiting Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.

In large part, many of the policy specifics Obama cited were ones he has been discussing since he was elected. But the spirit of the moment -- as the country sought to heal itself in the wake of the Giffords tragedy and Congress convened in a spirit of cooperation -- lent renewed urgency to his vision of a more perfect union.

"We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled." And as he finished, he said, quite simply, "We do big things. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice."

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