A different critique, from the Atomic age: It seemed clear tonight that at least one of the President’s speechwriters was trying to have him to channel Dwight Eisenhower, in his focus on education, efficiency, bipartisanship, competency, and global competition. The Sputnik references made it all rather obvious.
This was a speech about “The Education Race,” our generation’s Space Race, a challenge to get America’s science education back program on track and leading the world — however, it got lost in the rhetorical rubble of a poorly crafted address.
Aside from structural flaws, with the address jumping from topic to topic, the speech opened and closed with veiled glances at the tea party and its lead spokeswomen Palin and Bachmann—who want to claim American Exceptionalism as exclusively their own. Obama had to defensively declare, before starting his own message, that he wants to rise above the “passion and rancor of our debate.” Who do you think he is talking about?
The transition in the SOTU was Obama’s recrimination of India and China, and the USA’s loss of its manufacturing base.
“We can out-innovate, and out-educate, the rest of the world.” Here is where we start hearing Ike. Challenge the society to outsmart the enemy, to out-build them. It’s no longer the Cold War, but the context is parallel. As is Obama’s need to govern in a postwar environment where divisive politics threaten to tear apart the process of governance. Ike had McCarthy. Obama has Bachmann, and Palin, and the tea party.
Like Ike, Obama backs the free market—while guarding against its overreach and the need for its regulation. The President today praised Google, Facebook…and the Wright Brothers, and Thomas Edison. But he also reminded us that the government had a hand in the creation of the Internet, and in our modern economy.
Obama also referenced the need for better education in this vein—and he also talked about paying our teachers more sustainable wages. Ike said this 50 years ago in the context of the Space Race and the Cold War. Unfortunately, President Obama tonight did not offer any specifics, did not back up his aspirations with policy. I hope that he will do so in the coming days.
Obama’s message fell short and left his potential Eisenhower theme disconnected over the course of an hour and fifteen minutes that seemed written by several writers and not well edited together. The Eisenhower Sputnik/Education message could have held the speech intact, connected as well with its few Kennedy references (JFK and RFK) that caught the theme.
“By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates of the world.”
By the end of the decade? “A man on the moon?” Where have we heard this before?
As Ike said, so often, industry and production and a strong economy are essential to maintaining our national competitiveness.
Back to Eisenhower: “The Education Race?”
Why wasn’t this the theme of the speech? As in “The Space Race?” Where was the key phrase, the idea we could grab on to? It was close, but the disjointed structure of this speech shows that Obama and his communications staff are still struggling to find their voice, to find the President’s voice.