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Posted at 11:31 PM ET, 01/25/2011

Dr. Win the War

By Harold Meyerson

In the days after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt found it necessary to make clear that he, and America, had turned a page. "Dr. New Deal," he said, has been replaced by "Dr. Win the War."

That's not a bad way to look at the State of the Union address that President Obama delivered tonight. During the first two years of his presidency, with his party controlling, more or less, both houses of Congress, he was able to enact some long-overdue progressive reforms. That was the New Deal part of his presidency (or, at least his first term). Tonight, with his ability to enact any more such reforms clearly gone, he championed a different set of policies, more appropriate to a nation at war -- an economic war, that is.

It's been apparent for several years that America's economic edge has slipped -- to the point that, by some measures, it's no longer an edge at all. Tonight's, however, was the first major address by an American president to acknowledge that fact. We rank ninth among the nations, Obama said, in the percentage of our young people with college degrees. Our roads, rails, airports and Internet lag behind those in Europe, South Korea and, in some cases, China. And while he didn't specify programs in talking about how to remedy all this (the specificity will come next month, when he delivers his budget), he was very clear that it will take increased public investment in research, education and infrastructure to restore America's edge.

These investment proposals will be central to his, and his party's, disputes with Republicans over the next two years. They will argue, as Rep. Paul Ryan did tonight in the official Republican rebuttal speech, that it's really just more government spending. But Obama has introduced the element of international competitiveness into the dispute. We're in an economic competition, he said, and on this point, he knows the American people agree with him. As in our previous contests with other nations, he argues, we need to invest resources to win.

By nationalizing his case for investment -- we invest to recapture America's economic edge -- Obama takes his case against the Republicans' war on government to a level where they can't really follow. Anyone who knows anything about U.S. economic history knows that the federal government's investment in building canals, rails and public schools was why America entered the 20th century prepared to lead the world. (Today's Republicans are heirs to the antebellum Southerners who weren't interested in building canals, rails and public schools, which is a major reason the South lost the Civil War.) Anyone who knows American economic history also knows that the Navy developed radio and the Defense Department came up with the Internet. Obama has packaged his program in the American traditions of doing big things and making the public investments that have given the nation its economic primacy.

Whether his new emphasis on investment, along with restructured corporate taxes, will actually impel our multinational corporations to produce their goods at home is by no means clear, as I argue in my op-ed column on tomorrow's page. But by claiming the high ground of bolstering the nation's economic standing in its competition with other rising lands, he makes the Republicans' one-note campaign to diminish the government look as counterproductive and altogether scatter-brained as it actually is. The Republicans are playing politics. Obama is fighting a war.

By Harold Meyerson  | January 25, 2011; 11:31 PM ET
Categories:  Meyerson  | Tags:  Harold Meyerson  
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