The Campaign Spot

The Loudly Applauded Presidential Wish List

The not-so-subtle message in Obama’s State of the Union address is, “Big Government doesn’t always stink; sometimes it is awesome and brings wonders to our lives.”

Because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need.  That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet.  That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.  Just think of all the good jobs — from manufacturing to retail — that have come from these breakthroughs.

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.

. . . We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.  At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities.  With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.  (Applause.)  This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car.  For some trips, it will be faster than flying –- without the pat-down.  (Laughter and applause.)  As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.

Of course, as Daniel Foster observed, the cost of the Apollo program, even adjusted for inflation, is chump change compared to current federal spending.

Look, if every government program generated the high-profile, historic, inspiring, and iconic success of the Apollo program, there wouldn’t be many small-government conservatives. Everybody likes programs that achieve goals once thought impossible. The problem is that the vast majority of government programs plod inefficiently on their good days and do much, much worse on their bad days.

One of the cheapest and easiest ways for a president to garner short-lived headlines praising his oh-so-inspiring vision is to “challenge” the American people to do great things. I doubt you remember this:

WASHINGTON, May 17, 1997 — In a speech meant to echo John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to the nation to put a man on the moon ‘’before this decade is out,’’ President Clinton plans to use a commencement address on Sunday to call for scientists to develop an AIDS vaccine within the next 10 years.

As if AIDS researchers needed a president to “challenge” them to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible. “Say, fellas, let’s skip the coffee break; Clinton’s thrown down the gauntlet in front of us.” What made the Kennedy challenge memorable is that it was actually achieved. In 2007, few if any went back and realized that the deadline had passed and Clinton’s “challenge” generated little beyond a favorable news cycle.

Without any concrete, detailed plans, most presidential challenges amount to high-profile, loudly applauded wishes. Somehow Obama will freeze spending and then throw more money at all of these goals, and then somehow . . . your car will run on sunlight and water, your electricity will come cheaply from those super-efficient nuclear facilities, and you’ll hop on a train that outraces commuter jets.

Don’t worry. You’ll forget about these promises eventually, but by then, they’ll have done their job: generating a bump in the approval rating.


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