Hours before he announced a compromise with GOP lawmakers on a package deal aimed at bolstering the economy, President Barack Obama emphasized America’s culture of innovation and stressed his commitment to continued investment in education.
Speaking to students and state officials gathered Monday at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, the president conveyed a broad vision for economic recovery. America, Obama said, is at risk of falling behind other nations and must look within for its economic strength.
“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 has always been built to compete,” he said. “And if we want to attract the best jobs and businesses to our shores, we’ve got to be that nation again.”
Forsyth recently implemented a new biotechnology program to expand its existing certificate and degree opportunities funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Obama said he chose to speak at the community college because its new program is a good example of how government can effectively help expand and improve education. He noted his campaign goal of reinstating the United States as the nation with the most college graduates by 2020.
“In an era where most new jobs will require some kind of higher education, we have to keep investing in the skills and education of our workers,” he said. “To get there, we’re making college more affordable for millions of students. We’ve made an unprecedented investment in community colleges just like this one.”
Although Obama stressed the stimulus’ successes, noting its creation of more than one million jobs in the private sector in the past two years—including 50,000 jobs in North Carolina alone—the president recognized that the country faces an uphill climb.
“[T]he recovery is simply not happening fast enough,” he said, acknowledging that the unemployment rate rose in November. “Plenty of Americans are still without work. Plenty of Americans are still hurting.”
Obama announced Monday evening that he would extend the Bush-era tax cuts at all income levels for two years as long as Republican congressmen agreed to the extension of benefits to the long-term unemployed and a payroll tax cut for all workers for one year. It appeared that the president and the GOP had reached a deal along those lines.
But at Forsyth, Obama focused on the economic stagnation as a function of the U.S. falling behind its foreign competitors. He noted statistics that show 80 percent of global industries want to expand research and development in India or China as opposed to in America.
Those two nations, he said, have shown a strong commitment to promoting education in math and science to a degree at which the U.S. can no longer compare. America ought to regard such numbers as a “wake-up call,” akin to the Soviet Launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite in space, he added.
“Once we put our minds to it, once we got focused, once we got unified, not only did we surpass the Soviets, we developed new American technologies, industries and jobs,” Obama reminded the audience. “So 50 years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back.”
Alongside eliminating unnecessary spending programs and borrowing less, Obama stated his hope that increased investment in education will bring about long-term economic growth.
“Cutting the deficit by cutting investments in areas like education, areas like innovation—that’s like trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine,” he said, provoking laughter.
As a long-term consequence of his envisioned educational reform, Obama said he hopes to see the creation of more products stamped with the words, “Made in America.”
Thomas Guastaferro, general editor of Forsyth’s student newspaper, called Technically Speaking, said the president’s speech resonated with students and promises to give the school more credibility in the future.
“This student body feels hopeful,” he said.
Obama acknowledged partisan conflicts in his speech but warned against letting them hinder necessary reform.
“If we’re willing to put aside short-term politics, if our objective is not simply winning elections but winning the future, then we should be able to get our act together here,” Obama said, “because we are all Americans and we are in this race together.”
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