Paul Dickson: President Obama's inaugural address needs a stirring phrase to inspire a renaissance
GARRETT PARK, Md. — If I was a presidential speechwriter, here is what I would propose based on my recent research about presidents' ability to coin words and phrases — ones like "bully pulpit" (a creation of Teddy Roosevelt for the authority of the office) and "neologize" (a word created by Thomas Jefferson for the act of creating and popularizing new words and phrases).
First and foremost, I would advise President Obama to strive for a phrase that encapsulates what he wants to achieve in the next four years — as Franklin D. Roosevelt did with his New Deal or John F. Kennedy did with his New Frontier.
Given the present political climate, this is a lot easier said than done. Also, the president and his writers don't seem to have the sloganeering skill of earlier presidents. The Obama administration has gone through a slew of slogans, none of which have had much, if any, impact. These include the one-word slogans "Hope," and "Forward" and such longer mottos as : "Greater Together," "Betting on America," "We Don't Quit," "Winning the Future," "A Fair Shot," and "An American Economy Built to Last" — from his 2012 State of the Union address.
But Obama may have already created — or at least popularized — a term that would serve him well as he begins his second term, which is to again declare we are experiencing a "Sputnik moment" — a point where people realize that they are threatened or challenged and have to redouble their efforts to catch up.
It alludes to the moment, Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, the Sputnik 1, and beat the United States into outer space.
As Roger Launius, senior curator of the National Air and Space Museum's division of space history at the Smithsonian Institution, explained recently, "A Sputnik moment is a trigger mechanism, an event that makes people collectively say that they need to do something, and this sets a course in another direction."
The term made its debut in Obama's 2011 State of the Union speech when he alluded to America's faltering leadership role in science and education by proclaiming: "This is our generation's Sputnik moment. As a result, we need to fund a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the space race, with particularly strong investments in biomedicine, information technology and clean-energy technology."
In the same section of the speech, he likened this funding effort to "the Apollo Project," which later put a man on the moon. The president's point was the need to jump-start the U.S. educational and economic systems. We were once in the top cluster of nations in the world in some key areas, but we are now drifting into the second tier in many areas.
Our original reaction to Sputnik brought with it a vast array of improvements in education, science and technology and did create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. With that reaction came a huge program to get qualified young people into college and graduate school in an attempt to intellectually re-arm the nation.
Meanwhile, as China continues to move ahead in the fields of science and math, America seems content to plod along at its current lackadaisical pace. China announced last summer that it had plans to send an unmanned rocket to the moon later this year in an effort to further the country's ambitious space program with a declared goal of landing humans on the moon in the near future.
The planting of a Chinese flag on the moon ought to spur an American scientific and educational renaissance just as the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik did in 1957. Mr. Obama can boost the chances with a well-turned inaugural phrase.
Paul Dickson is the author of "Words from the White House: Phrases Coined or Popularized by America's Presidents."
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