State of the Union: Innovation is our Only Hope

On Jan. 25, President Obama gave his second State of the Union address, outlining his vision of America’s present and its future. First and foremost, Obama addressed the nation’s lingering concerns about the economy. Unfortunately, the main signs of progress cited by the President remain detached from the common US citizen’s daily life. Yes, the stock market has “come roaring back,” and yes, corporate profits are once again headline news. Though the President waxed eloquent on the need to build up small businesses and measure progress by new jobs and quality of life, growth on Wall Street and rising fortunes of business bigwigs have not changed life for the average American. In January, seasonally adjusted unemployment stood at nine percent, down only 0.7 percent from a year ago.

In terms of policy, Obama offered improvements in innovation, education and infrastructure as tools to help the US economy rebound. On innovation, clean energy research and cuts to oil company subsidies dominated the talk. On education, the main initiative presented was Race to the Top, complemented by the goal of 100,000 new science and math teachers. On infrastructure, high speed—in both rail and wireless coverage—was the focus. Like most State of the Union addresses, the policy details were lacking, leaving many to speculate whether the proposed initiatives would really deliver the job growth and recovery that Obama promised.

Second, Obama pledged to reduce the deficit through economic growth, streamlining the bureaucracy and freezing domestic spending. Deficit reduction and small government are the battle cries of Republicans, particularly the newly prominent Tea Partiers, so it’s no wonder Obama spent a large chunk his speech addressing the resurgent Republicans’ bread and butter. Bureaucratic streamlining through tax simplification and review of government regulations have been proposed as economic remedies for decades, but have brought results only infrequently. Furthermore, domestic spending represents only 12 percent of the annual budget—it doesn’t begin to account for bloated defense and health care spending. (Even with the end of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan, defense spending in the next three years will continue to rise due to interest payments on debt.)

Third, Obama addressed the role of the US in foreign affairs. Obama spoke of both enemies (Al Qaeda, Iran, North Korea) and allies (Brazil, India, South Korea), of new democracies (Tunisia and South Sudan) and new treaties (New START). Obama, though not on his original timeframe, has held true to his goal of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but new crises in the region force the question: how will the US act to ensure future political stability in the Middle East? Support of new economic and defense agreements is laudable, but in the days following the State of the Union address, the US offered a feeble response to the violent protests and political instability in Egypt.

The state of the US—of the US economy, its deficit and foreign policy—hinges on improvements in the inner workings of the government. At the beginning of the address, the President spoke broadly about the need for politicians and Americans to work together to overcome partisan strife. It is incredible to see the inefficiency and inability (or unwillingness) of Democrats and Republicans to set policies that point our country economically and politically in the right direction; the Tea Party response to the President’s address epitomized the fundamental divide that prevents policymaking from making progress in Congress. In a country beset with economic strife unknown in our lifetimes, as collegians we are faced with perhaps the bleakest job market in decades. The mantra “overeducated and underemployed” has never resonated as strongly with a generation. Political and ideological struggles prevent progress from being made at a policy level and thus we, individually, find ourselves without jobs and, increasingly, without hope.

Incredibly, just two years into Obama’s presidency, the promises of “hope” and “change” seem at times distant. However, they are not unattainable. While America’s role as the world’s only superpower seems to be passing, the tale of American reinvention should give us some faith. President Obama’s first point, innovation, has been a key to reinvigorating and reinventing the US economy time and again. The information revolution of the 1980s has spawned a generation of new companies like Google and Facebook, worth billions of dollars less than a decade after their births. GM’s emergence from bankruptcy and the recent innovative success of the Volt are signs that the American car industry is (nearly) back on its feet. In the next decade, the drive for renewable energy may be, in less exciting fashion, the 21st-century Space Race.

The US must accept a more modest role in global economic and political affairs in the coming years. Innovation in technology, business, and education may help US job growth, but each year millions more around the world will compete in the same job pool. Whether in the Middle East, East Asia, or the Americas, the political presence of the US will remain important, but we should restrain our involvement. As a country, we do big things, but in the future, the things we do might not be quite as big—and that’s not too bad.

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