As a number of commentators and political pundits have opined this week, State of the Union’s are often unmemorable affairs where the words and substance are quickly forgotten in favor of some other major remarks by the President and Congressional leaders. It’s too early to say where President Obama’s remarks will measure in history, but there were still a couple of points that I thought worthy of highlighting.
— Maybe it was the mixed seating of Republicans and Democrats or the residual effects of the post-Tucson shooting events, but overall, I thought the speech was flat. I fully confess to being one of those Washington Beltway geeks that genuinely looks forward to these yearly events. Regardless of who it is, I want to know what the President has to say and I want to watch the reaction of various Members to what is being presented, be they enthusiastic, annoyed or even sleeping.
There is no doubt at the oratorical gifts that this President has, but until he started speaking about the rescue efforts of the Chilean miners and the fact that Americans do big things at the later portion of his remarks, it seemed to exude no measurable amount of energy. President Obama could read a phone book, and it would transmit people into a fervor, but for some reason, last night was one night when that charge did not happen.
— When he delivered his remarks about the cross jurisdiction that the Departments of Interior and Commerce have regarding salmon (and the very funny line about smoking them), President Obama made a powerful point about the inefficiency that is often caused by overlapping responsibilities – overlap that a number of government agencies and departments possess.
For those of us close to the homeland security sector, his comments rang particularly true, given that he was standing in the very belly of the beast of inefficiency and excessive oversight. With more than 120 committees overseeing DHS and homeland activities, he could not have cited for the American public a more inept and glaringly excessive waste of government time and resources than what both parties have done to homeland security. The President missed a humdinger of an example to point out there.
— The opening points the President made about the importance of education and innovation to the economic growth and opportunity for the country were quite poignant. We are having the tar kicked out of us when it comes to producing the next generation of scientists, engineers and technologists. China, India and other nations are producing more talent than we can count right now, and that type of production is ultimately more dangerous to the long term future of this country and its economic leadership in the world. The President’s words on this issue are solid, but they are points that he has made before in previous speeches. Curiously, many of these points were echoed in an editorial/article written earlier this week for Forbes Magazine by Norm Augustine, the much heralded aerospace/defense industry leader. Augustine is no stranger to this Administration, given his role in leading the blue ribbon panel that reviewed the now-cancelled NASA Constellation, but to have his remarks come out just days before the State of the Union is either serendipity or some very clever coordination by the White House message machine.
Regardless of what it was, this point about America’s dependence on having a new generation of really smart people is critical for us to act upon. For decades now, smart people like Augustine have been warning about this problem. The final report of the Hart-Rudman Commission, which was the blueprint for DHS, stated clearly that next to a weapon of mass destruction going off in an American city, the greatest threat to our country’s security was not having the science, engineering and technology talent to provide for our nation’s future economic growth and national security needs. We can not be a nation unprepared and unqualified to lead in these areas if we hope to continue to be a leader.
— As to being a “Sputnik moment,” the President has used this term before and it’s a great historical example of how America woke up from its slumber to recognize it had to get its head in the game to address the threat and challenge that came from the now-extinct Soviet Union. I have to confess that I have an issue with its use, given what is happening with the aerospace community, of which I used to be a part. We are literally on the eve of the last two space shuttle flights, meaning the only way we as a nation can access the International Space Station, (that American taxpayers paid for) is by buying a seat on former Soviet/now Russian Soyuz rockets.
On top of that, NASA has been forced to and will continue to have to lay off some of the smartest people in the country because its current mission is to “Nowheresville.” Yes, the Agency is retooling for a future where there will be more commercial opportunities to access the space station and explore the universe, but talking about a “Sputnik moment” in midst of huge layoffs by the people who surpassed Sputnik and more rings hollow to me. Furthermore, it’s hard to inspire generations of children to embrace science, technology and mathematics disciplines when thousands of people vested in those areas are being laid off and have nowhere to go.
— I can take a joke, and I certainly have given my fair share of them at DHS’ expense, but I have to say, if I was a TSA employee and was listening to what the President said last night, I would be really peeved. After going through a gauntlet of criticisms, put downs, and outright demonization by angry citizens, the blogosphere, Members of Congress, and late-night comedians about the use of body-scan images and secondary screening pat-downs, to have the President make a wisecrack about not having to go through a pat-down when it comes to using high-speed rail was a real slap in the face to TSA.
I know it was meant as a joke, and it was a throw away line that got a laugh out of the assembled audience, but if you are one of those people who has one of the thankless jobs screening passengers at an airport, the President just dissed you in front of the very people you are trying to protect. I find that really disheartening, especially the day after 35 people were killed and more than a 120 people were injured in a suicide bombing in a Moscow Airport. I’m sure the President’s Press Secretary will respond that no insult was intended by the remark, but tell that to the people who are trying their utmost to protect a traveling public. I’m no fan of pat-down procedures, but I understand why they are there, and I find it difficult to joke about it the day after so much carnage occurred. Again, I know it was a joke, but the President owes the people on the front line a whole lot more respect than he gave them last night.