For the president, the stakes could not have been higher. In his State of the Union address, he had to build on the momentum of his Tucson speech, bringing all the elements of the Democrats’ coalition back into the fold. That is a tight needle to thread considering the tension within the Democrat camp — between those who want the president to be a so-called “New Democrat” in the mold of Bill Clinton, and those who want the president to make true on the promises born out of his progressive roots.
So the State of the Union was a gambit that ultimately fell short — an odd pastiche that, on greater scrutiny, was full of bizarre segues and loaded with the typical doublespeak for which the president has now become known. By trying to be everything to everybody, the president neither inspired nor activated.
Take what is now being popularly termed “the Sputnik moment.” Although many presidents try to evoke the spirit of JFK’s Apollo program, to reach back to the mid-50s was, well, strange. Any attempt to draw on the Cold War anxieties that surrounded the launch of Sputnik was doomed to fail, because only a small slice of the electorate (those over 60) can even remember the Soviet satellite, and few others understand its intellectual implications.
The problem, of course, is that we are no longer engaged in the stark binary conflict that existed during the height of the Cold War. Our struggle with China is far more subtle. So while the president attempted to cast China as our rival, he also admonished us to be more like the Chinese.
Do you remember the State of the Union address in which Dwight Eisenhower admonished us to be more like the Soviets, because they had beaten us into space? Do you remember JFK invoking the hallmarks of Soviet education in his call to beat the Russians to the Moon?
No, you don’t, because those things never happened.
We shouldn’t admire the Chinese. We shouldn’t desire to emulate the Russians. And while the president evokes America’s innovative and entrepreneurial spirit, his persistent attempts to destroy it give more credence to his calls for admiration than his attempts at elevating American exceptionalism (especially given his statements denouncing such exceptionalism in the past — more doublespeak).
The Chinese are building science and technical universities, and are, by all accounts, far ahead of us in the realm of scientific studies. But where has this gotten China, innovation-wise? Why haven’t the Chinese developed the next Google, the next light bulb, the next great thing that will revolutionize people’s lives?
The answer is that they can’t. By discouraging individualism and independent thought, their system stifles the ability to innovate, the ability to invent. China can open another M.I.T. or Cal Tech every month, but without that entrepreneurial instinct, they’ll never have a Steve Jobs or David Packard inventing the next great thing in their garages.
This is why their economy is based on stealing the ideas of others. That and slave labor.
Moreover, the president talks about Russia and China building modern roads and trains. Yes, Mr. President, they are, because under their long-term totalitarian and anti-market regimes, these tools of freedom were long neglected. And rather than build trains to 20th-century standards, they are going to build for the 21st century.
People come to America because they have that spark — it is the essence of the American Dream. The president, for all his doublespeak, apparently has a vague understanding of this, because it led to one of the oddest segues in his speech: his throwaway line about illegal immigration, a poorly placed sentence wedged into the space between his riff on education and his foray into infrastructure “investment.”
That couldn’t be more telling. In that cramped statement, the president showed his hand. He really doesn’t “get” why America is great. He really doesn’t “get” why Sputnik was so jarring, or what drove Americans to beat the Soviets to the Moon.
Government spending isn’t what allowed us to beat the Russians to the Moon. If it had been all about government spending, we wouldn’t have beaten them at all. America got to the Moon first because our system encourages competition and innovation, and allows for people to express themselves freely.
But if you don’t understand that, then your attempts to explain it are going to be confused. You’re left with a mixed message — or worse, doublespeak.
Andrew Langer is the President of the Institute for Liberty, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization focused on small business and the costs of regulation.