President Barack Obama said the U.S. is facing a “Sputnik moment” in the race to educate and train a workforce that can compete in the global economy and to put the nation’s finances in order.
The Soviet Union’s launch of the first satellite in 1957 was a “wake up call” that spurred a U.S. focus on science and math education that helped make the nation dominant in technological development, Obama said. Today, the U.S. is facing a similar challenge from rapidly growing economies such as China, India and South Korea.
“In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind,” the president said in a speech at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “If this is truly going to be our Sputnik moment, we need a commitment to innovation we haven’t seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon.”
The president used the address to outline themes and policies on education and innovation that he will focus on in the months ahead. Obama’s efforts to get initiatives through Congress will be constrained starting in January as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and Democrats have a narrower majority in the Senate following the midterm elections.
Another issue that will dominate during the next year is the deficit, which hit $1.294 trillion in fiscal 2010. Obama said getting the country’s long-term debt under control is crucial for the future.
“We’ve got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth,” he said. “Reducing our long-term deficit has to be a priority.”
Last week the president’s bipartisan debt commission failed to endorse a $3.8 trillion budget-cutting plan as members from both parties opposed its mix of tax increases and spending cuts in programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Even though the plan fell short of the 14 out of 18 votes needed to forward the proposal to Congress for consideration, lawmakers are considering some of the commission’s ideas to curb costs.
While many programs that aren’t needed or affordable must be cut from the federal budget, Obama said he would draw the line at trimming spending for “education, and innovation and infrastructure.”
He said advancing and spreading technology for clean energy, high-speed rail and broadband Internet service are Internet the “seeds of economic growth” for the 21st century.
U.S. economic competitors are forging ahead in those areas, he said.
“China has the fastest trains and the fastest supercomputer in the world,” the president said. “There is no reason that over 90 percent of the homes in South Korea have high-speed Internet and only 65 percent of American households do.”
Before the speech, Obama toured two classrooms at the school where students were doing research on genetics, human proteins and microbiology.
Many of the graduates of the school are getting jobs in local biotech or related industries or have won internships, putting them on a path to employment, according to the White House.
“Cutting the deficit by cutting investments in areas like education, areas like innovation, that’s like trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing the engine,” he said. “It’s not a good idea.”