Frankly, the news about the current election has been deeply disturbing. The change that was promised has not occurred fast enough or easily enough for a large number of people, and so they are shifting their alliances, a shift that endangers whatever progress has been made over the course of the Obama administration.
As I was reading the paper today, I came across an article on the front page of the New York Times. The article about the new supercomputer in China is disturbing on one level, although I have faith that the greatest strength of the United States lies in whatever is left of its democracy, rather than in its technological prowess.
That said, it struck me that there could be advantages in taking an extremely competitive approach toward this challenge from China. As JFK took office, Washington focused on the Soviet Union, and the advantage that the USSR was gaining in space technology. As we now know, some of the "missile gap" was really non-existent, yet it provided a focus for JFK's agenda. Our own space program was in large part a response to this perceived threat from the USSR. With the space program, the US gained national pride, scientific prestige and a technological edge. The long list of innovations and advances that came from the space program includes items such as aircraft controls, microcomputers, virtual reality, athletic shoes and even enriched baby food.
But the space program and these fruits would not have occurred if the project were framed in purely scientific terms. The US needed an enemy, some foe that threatened us on a profound level, in order to mobilize and support such a broad program.
If the current president took a similarly competitive approach toward China, it could benefit him politically and help the nation as a whole. While I am personally not very competitive, I think the US culture is. We need a foe. But not any foe will do. Since the end of the Cold War, we have faced foes that are amorphous and not really worthy of a superpower. You can find them in the movies of Bruce Willis or any other action hero. Drug lords and terrorists. How do we combat such enemies? Response to such threats requires police actions, not broadly organized efforts.
Really facing the threat from China would require a broad effort to completely streamline our education system. At the moment, a large number of high school graduates are math illiterate. That would have to change, beginning with rigorous math education in the lower grades. In institutions of higher learning, the focus would be on regaining the technical edge that we had in this area at one time. In this atmosphere of shared sacrifice, the hedonism that afflicts our society would become less socially acceptable.
All this would require funding at a time when the opposition complains about the size of the debt (largely run up by the previous president). This funding will be impossible to obtain unless the need is framed in terms of a national emergency. When World War II began, notions of balanced budgets were thrown out the window. While I think the program to repair the nation's infrastructure is important and long overdue, it does not have the psychological impact of making sacrifices because of an existential battle. It is such a battle that could revive this country and the political fortunes of Mr. Obama.