Daniel W. Drezner

Pre-blogging the State of the Union

Pre-blogging the State of the Union

Your humble blogger has, in the past, live-blogged or live-tweeted the State of the Union address. After reading the National Journal‘s draft of the speech, I’ve decided that the mindless applause will convert a decent 30-minute speech into an interminable 75-minute talkathonso I’m gonna watch Mystery Men instead to pass.

Looking over the draft, however, I see that the Obama administration has really taken this competitiveness theme to heart. More than any State of the Union I’ve seen before, President Obama raises the examples of other countries doing things better than the United States as an impetus for the U.S. to do more. Consider:

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer….

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. 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….

The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed….

Our infrastructure used to be the best – but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a "D."

We have to do better.

I’m curious to see how this will play out. On the one hand, the administration is obviously using this kind of "we’re falling behind other countries!" shtick as a way to build public support for investments in education and infrastructure. In the same speech he talks about falling behind South Korea, for example, he embraces the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

At the same time, I have two big concerns with this approach. First, there’s the risk of rhetorical blowback, in which everyone freaks out and reacts in a hysterical manner.

Second, and more important, the percentage of the speech devoted to microeconomic "competitiveness" issues vastly exceeds the amount devoted to long-term macroeconomic policy. If the federal government really wants to create a better climate for innovation, it needs to send a credible signal that steps are being taken to deal with long-term budgetary problems. That section of the speech was, er, less solid.

[What about the foreign policy sections?!–ed. Meh. Nothing bad — just nothing of substance either. One could argue that the biggest foreign policy innovation of the SOTU is the administration’s decision to use globalization as the political crowbar to pry infrastructure spending investments from Congress.]

Feel free to comment away on what you would like to see in the speech.