One particular historical reference in President Obama’s State of the Union address has attracted some attention. Amidst a section urging America to innovate, Obama said (according to the White House transcript):
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 would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t 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. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -– (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.
Some liked this reference, others did not. The Atlantic sums up some of the reaction here.
This is the problem with historical analogies. On one hand, Sputnik stirs up certain emotions and memories for the American public. American history books suggest this was a consequential moment as America altered its course to keep up with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, this moment was over 50 years ago, it came during a unprecedented period in American history, and there is no more Soviet Union.
It would be interesting to see poll data on what viewers thought of the Sputnik reference. Is this something that resonates with a majority of Americans? Does this idea of an outside threat (whether it is the Soviet Union, or Japan, or China) motivate people?