Obama's first State of the Union Address since his reelection was largely and predictably dedicated to nearsighted deficit talk and weary calls to overcome Congressional dysfunction. But amidst the boilerplate—and the comparatively impassioned calls for action on gun control and, to a lesser extent, climate change—Obama snuck in some radical, forward-looking ideas. Some are downright utopian. SOTUs are notorious for being lofty wish-lists, so consider these proposals as Obama's wildest political fantasies.
Here's how the president wants us to win the future this time, in his words:
1. Transform Declining Towns into 3D Printing Hubs
"A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything. There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns. So tonight, I’m announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs … to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs."
Obama was referring to the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, where the Department of Defense provided a $30 million startup grant, matched by a consortium of big name corporations, universities and non-profits like Boeing, IBM, and Carnegie Mellon University; NASA, the National Science Foundation and others are expected to help fund the center, which opened in August and will select its first round of projects next month.
2. Spend Money on Science Like We're in a Space Race
"Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race."
Despite some cringe-worthy problems that can come with pretending we're in a space race (oversimplification, insularity, fear), investing in science and technology can leave fantastic long-term effects on the economy--assuming you have politicians behind you who actually get science. And it turns out that this is a big assumption. (By the way: despite that asteroid that's buzzing Earth this week, Obama made no actual mention of travelling to asteroids or anywhere else in space.)
3. Use Oil and Gas Money to Fund Cleantech Research
"I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good."
Obama was certainly inspired on this one by the clean-tech efforts of outgoing energy secretary Steven Chu; he will be forever and dumbly haunted by Solyndra, the famous Republican punching bag, which Sen. Marco Rubio made sure to mention in the official GOP response address.
4. Amp Up Wind Power
"Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more."
It's also not bad for your local economy.
5. Go All-In On Solar
"Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we."
The U.S. has a lot of room for improvement in solar development, but the technology exists to power much if not all of the U.S. with solar, and recently, new funding platforms have made it easier for more people to invest in small-scale rooftop solar projects.
6. Build High Speed Rail to Attract Foreign Investment
"Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs."
Currently, we've only a single high speed rail line in progress—a California line that will connect L.A. and San Francisco—that is being constructed at a glacial pace, to say nothing of the hundreds of infrastructure projects, including road and bridge repair, that need funding. Despite great, widely-Tweeted dreams of nationwide high speed rail, it will be awhile before oil prices and bad roads and fed-up citizens will force leaders to begin an earnest push to bring high-speed rail out of the trunk where it's long been kept locked up by Washington.
7. Get Self-Healing Power Grids
Yeah, he said "self-healing power grids." Those would be the kind of smart grids that are more distributed, full of sensors, and--as we know would have been valuable during Hurricane Sandy--capable of re-routing electricity when parts fail.
8. Acheive Universal Preschool
"Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America."
Doing so, according to one study, may lead to significant improvements in reading, writing, and math for children of all backgrounds--especially if the pre-schools are high performing.
9. Turn High Schools Into High Tech Incubators
"Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future."
The President singled out P-Tech, a "9-14" Brooklyn school established by New York City, the City University of New York, and IBM that gives students a chance to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering. High tech learning--if not online learning--will become even more important as machines and new technologies demand that we understand how to manage and fix them. Before they actually take our jobs, that is.
10. Peg the Minimum Wage to the Cost of Living
"... let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on."
Raising a worker's minimum wage from $7.15 to $9 would mean a household income of $18,000 a year, which may be enough to live on but is still below the national poverty line. (For reference: Apple Store employees make an average of $23,000 a year; cue Obama's line about companies getting richer while workers are getting poorer.) Skeptics say raising the federal minimum wage would mean job cuts; advocates argue it would increase consumer spending. The fate of this idea, like much else above, will rest in the hands of a generally skeptical Congress.
Of course, Obama had plenty of backwards and incoherent ideas, too—ramping up oil drilling while trying to fight climate change, signing a cyber-security executive order that somehow promotes both "information-sharing" and privacy, and referring to his "transparent" war on terror without mentioning drones, for instance. But this is a difficult time for the U.S. and for Washington, and even as he pointed out huge challenges, Obama did his job as President tonight, pointing at America's opportunities, and the kind of changes that, you know, you want to believe in.