More on Metaphor and Obama’s Sputnik Analogy

In the State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama returned to a metaphor he has used before—the comparison of this moment in American history with the space race of the 1950s and ‘60s. “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 … 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.”

As described in my previous post on this metaphor, Obama clearly intended the metaphor to be an inspirational call to entrepreneurship and invention. But Sputnik is not the right metaphor for our current predicament, and it is unlikely to light a fire under the next generation of American innovators.

First of all, Sputnik long ago lost its iconic status in our collective memory. Few younger people today can probably imagine just how great a shock the Soviet launch of Sputnik was—to our national pride, yes, but even more importantly to our national security. That generalized sense of imminent threat from a foreign power does not exist today; it’s been replaced by the much more localized and personal threat of terrorism.

Second, the ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union was very much a competition and very much a race. The two countries were opponents competing head to head. The ‘race’ metaphor was implicit throughout Obama’s speech, most noticeably in the repeated use of phrases like “The future is ours to win” and “winning the future.” Our competitors in this race are countries like China and India, which are out-innovating us just as the Soviets did in the 1950s.

But this isn’t the 1950s, and unleashing “a wave of innovation” and creating “new industries and millions of new jobs” depends more on collaboration than confrontation with countries like China and India. Obama even acknowledged when he suggested that foreign students and the children of illegal immigrants be allowed to remain in the U.S. to start businesses and create jobs. The President, keen to sustain the conciliatory tone he struck at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting, was careful to use the metaphor of “family” when referring to domestic issues. But he reverted to an ‘us versus them’ metaphor when talking about the economic threat posed by America’s foreign competitors.

Obama’s Sputnik metaphor isn’t right because today both the stakes and the threats are totally different. We do need to create jobs, get the economy going, and reduce C02 emissions, for sure. But to achieve those goals America needs China and India just as much as it needs investment in alternative energy and infrastructure projects. This race is only won if everyone crosses the finishing line at the same time.