Local Politics

Obama: U.S. faces new 'Sputnik moment'

Posted December 5, 2010 9:47 p.m. EST
Updated December 6, 2010 8:56 p.m. EST

— President Barack Obama said Monday during a visit to a North Carolina community college that the U.S. needs to put more emphasis on math and science education and worker training.

Obama also told a select group of students and faculty at Forsyth Technical Community College and Winston-Salem business leaders that he was confident that Congress would agree on legislation to extend income tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of the month.

"A middle-class tax hike would be very tough not only on working families but would also be a drag on our economy," he said.

Any compromise needs to include extending jobless benefits to millions of unemployed Americans, he said.

"It's the smart thing to do," he said. "If millions of Americans who aren't getting unemployment benefits stop spending money, that slows down business. That slows down hiring. That slows down our recovery."

Earlier Monday, Obama and Gov. Beverly Perdue toured two biotechnology classrooms at Forsyth Tech and talked with students and faculty. He challenged the students to lead America's climb back to the top of the global economy.

"He was just saying stay in school and don't take no for an answer. That's one of the things I heard from him when I shook his hand," student Clifton Giles said.

During his speech, he noted that the U.S. has fallen from first to ninth place worldwide in terms of the percentage of its population with college degrees. He also cited studies that show the U.S. lags in math and science education.

"The most important contest we face is not between Democrats and Republicans. It's between America and our economic competitors around the world," he said. "In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind."

China, India and other countries are now investing more in education and infrastructure than the U.S., Obama said. He compared the global economic challenge to the space race of the 1960s between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and said the U.S. must take action to meet a new "Sputnik moment."

"If the recession has taught us anything, it's that we cannot go back to an economy that's driven by too much spending, too much borrowing (and) running up credit cards," he said. "We've got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth.

"We need to do what America's always been known for – building, innovating, educating, making things," he continued. "We don't want to be a nation that simply buys and consumes things from other countries. We want to create and sell products all over the world that are stamped with three simple words: Made in America."

Vowing to return the U.S. to the top position worldwide by 2020 in the percentage of college graduates, he called for more spending on education while trimming other spending to cut the federal deficit, saying the U.S. cannot afford to cut back on programs that affect future economic growth. He noted that Forsyth Tech students are learning on equipment bought with federal stimulus funds.

"The best antidote to a growing deficit is a growing economy," he said. "Cutting the deficit by cutting investments in areas like education (and) innovation is like trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing the engine. It's not a good idea."

Forsyth Tech offers nearly 200 degree programs, from auto body repair to nanotechnology. Many students are embarking on a second career after being laid off from their first one.

"Before I got laid off, (my former company) told everybody that was going to get laid off they were going to pay for school, so I did some research on what I wanted to do, and Forsyth Tech was probably the best place for me to go," student Eric Sluss said.

Obama also called for investing 3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in scientific research in areas like renewable energy to produce new industries and jobs. He said tax credits for research and entrepreneurial investment are needed, and he suggested allowing businesses to be able to write off all capital investments they make in 2011 to jump-start the economy.

The U.S. also needs to work to expand its exports – Obama has set a goal of doubling exports within five years – and to invest in infrastructure, he said.

"We're the nation that built the transcontinental railroad. We're the nation that took the first airplane into flight. We constructed a massive interstate highway system. We introduced the world to the Internet. America's always been built to compete," he said. "If we want to attract the best jobs and businesses to our shores, we've got to be that nation again."