The most significant part of President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address came in the first few lines.
He quoted a predecessor and fellow Democrat, John F. Kennedy – "It is my task to report the State of the Union – to improve it is the task for all of us."
When Kennedy delivered those lines in 1962 the United States was, as it is now, the richest and most powerful nation on earth. But like today that status was under challenge. The Soviet Union had a string of firsts in space; its nuclear arsenal was numerically superior and Europe was divided into its Cold War camps with serious doubts within NATO that it could withstand a serious Soviet push westwards.
Today the rival and the type of confrontation are different. China's growing prominence is not yet based on military might - the US still spends more on defence then the next 10 nations combined – Beijing's strengths lie in its vibrant economy and its ability to grab an increasing share of world trade. There is endless speculation about the Asian Century and the rise of China; at the same time the US is being written off as a failing giant, beset by debt, its democracy in deadlock.
When journalists parrot the traditional wisdom that China will overhaul the US and become the world's largest economy within 20 years – a situation that will occur only if China continues to grow at its current rate and the US languishes in the depths of GFC-induced recession – they do not portray this as one of several possibilities, they state it as a fact.
This week Obama plotted a different course. The US was moving away from the dark GFC years; it was "clearing away the rubble of crisis". The picture was far from rosy, but the light was certainly at the end of the tunnel.
Here is a portion of the address that will be passed over by most non-American reporters, but is in fact fundamental to what the US will be doing in the years and decades ahead:
Last year we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio, A once shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything. There's no reason this can't happen in other towns. So tonight, I'm announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where business will partner with the Departments of Defence and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalisation into global centres of high-tech jobs. And I ask this Congress to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made in America.
Obama went on to point out that US research into the human genome had produced vast benefits to its economy – 140 times the amount originally invested; the nation's scientists were deep into the problem of understanding and combatting Alzheimer's Disease; developing drugs that would help regenerate damaged organs; devising new substances to make batteries 10 times more efficient than the most efficient currently in commercial operation.
He said the challenge for America today was to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race.
So once again he was harking back to the 1960s and the space race, which the United States eventually won easily with its moon landings between 1969 and 1972. From there, of course, the Soviet Union was unable to adapt fast enough to the communications revolution that was sweeping the world and eventually went out of business.
I do not believe Obama is trying for exact comparisons between the China now and the Soviet Union of mid-last century. China is an entity with a 5000-year history and 1.2 billion people. It is not going anywhere, whereas the Soviet Union was a manufactured entity cobbled together out of the old Tsarist Empire. Rather, the president is resisting the idea that the US will quietly drift into oblivion.
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