Obama urges 'Sputnik moment' for U.S.

U.S. President Barack Obama is calling for more spending on education, innovation and infrastructure to ensure that America doesn't lag behind other countries.

U.S. President Barack Obama called Monday for more spending on education, innovation and infrastructure to ensure a future where America does not lag behind other countries.

Without detailing specific proposals, Obama told teachers and students at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, Va., that it was time for an American "Sputnik moment." He was referring to the 1957 Soviet satellite launch that jolted the United States into jump-starting its own space and science programs.

"We need a commitment to innovation we haven't seen since President [John F.] Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon," Obama said.

The speech was a preview of Obama's state of the union address early next year and his 2011 agenda as he grapples with a divided Congress over the next two years, aides said.

"Right now, the hard truth is this: in the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind," Obama said. "That's just the truth. And if you hear a politician say it's not, they're just not paying attention."

The president set out a goal that no politician would dispute: "to win the future."

The disagreements will come over how to get America there, with Republicans certain to be skeptical of any new program that costs tax dollars.

Eisenhower's 'Sputnik moment'

The first "Sputnik moment" spurred President Dwight D. Eisenhower to fund an educational initiative to increase the number of scientists and engineers in a nonmilitary setting, said American University public policy professor Howard McCurdy, an expert on space and technology history.

It was without a specific goal, but it was given a goal — to get to the moon — and made more competitive and militaristic by Kennedy, McCurdy said.

McCurdy said that while a jolt of innovation is needed for the country, he's not sure what type of precipitous major event Obama is referring to. Usually, it requires "a Pearl Harbor, a shock to the system" and is followed by something new and major, neither of which is occurring, he said. 

Obama acknowledged the hard reality of the country's fiscal woes and said he'd be looking at the recent proposals from his budget commission to find ways to trim deficits over the short term.

"I will argue and insist that we cannot cut back on those investments that have the biggest impact on our economic growth," Obama said.

He said that cutting spending on education, research and development and green technologies would be like trying to reduce the weight of an airplane by removing the engine.

"We've got to have a long-term vision about where we want to be 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now," he said. 

Income tax cuts, employment benefits extended

Obama also used his speech at the community college to press for a compromise on the continuation of Bush-era tax cuts. He reiterated his position that no upper-income tax cuts should be extended unless jobless benefits are as well.

He announced late Monday an agreement with Republicans to extend expiring income tax cuts for all Americans, renew jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and grant a one-year reduction in Social Security taxes.

The emerging agreement also includes tax breaks for businesses that Obama said would contribute to the economy's recovery from the worst recession in eight decades.

His announcement marked a dramatic reversal of his long-held insistence, originally laid out in his 2008 campaign, that tax cuts should only be extended at incomes up to $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.

He explained his about-face by saying that the agreement called for a temporary, two-year extension of cuts at all income levels, not the permanent renewal that Republicans have long sought.