After a year buffeted by squeezes to federally funded research from a government shutdown as well as an extremely bumpy rollout of healthcare.gov, President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union Tuesday night struck a few hopeful notes for science and technology.
Speaking before Congress, he devoted roughly a fifth of his speech to topics including climate change, renewable energy and investing in science and education opportunities. His prepared remarks came in at a word count of 6,778 words.
He addressed the impact of the budget cuts to research head on: “Federally-funded research helped lead to the ideas and inventions behind Google and smartphones,” he said. “That’s why Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery. There are entire industries to be built based on vaccines that stay ahead of drug-resistant bacteria, or paper-thin material that’s stronger than steel,” he said.
He launched his 65-minute speech with a nod to technology and fuel efficiency, saying that in America today, “an entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years. An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil.”
Obama pledged to move forward with a go-it-alone strategy for 2014, promising to use executive powers to implement and expand upon reforms for climate change mitigation, energy innovation and environmental conservation if faced with Congressional torpor. “I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations,” he said. “America does not stand still—and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “Let’s make this a year of action.” Such efforts by the White House could prove controversial in an election year in which Republicans would only have to net a half dozen seats to take hold of the Senate and scuttle Democratic policy priorities.
The President called for advances in high-tech manufacturing, speaking of the two pilot high-tech hubs his administration already launched in Raleigh, N.C., and Youngstown, Ohio, which bring companies, colleges and government together as investors for manufacturing technologies, and unveiled plans to launch six more in 2014 using his executive authority. He also called for Congress to double the number of such hubs with bipartisan bills to help him get to his 15-hub goal. “Get those bills to my desk and put more Americans back to work,” he asked.
On the topic of education, Obama highlighted how he has moved to make good on his 2013 pledge to connect 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband over the next four years. “Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit,” he said.
He also spoke of his all-of-the-above energy strategy. America has produced more oil at home than it has had to import for the first time in nearly 20 years, he said. He praised the potential of natural gas as a “bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change” and pledged to cut red tape to help states build new factories that use it. He called for Congress to create jobs for people erecting fueling stations that could shift more vehicles to use natural gas extracted in the U.S. But he also underscored America’s successes with solar power. “Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar; every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job cannot be outsourced. Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do,” he said.
Even while energy reform was a focus of the President's speech, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz was not listening alongside other Cabinet members in the Capitol building. This year he was the cabinet official designated to miss the speech to preserve the line of succession in the event of a disaster.
Some of Obama’s road map for executive actions built upon the template he laid out last year for climate change. In his 2013 SOTU, Obama said if Congress did not take action on climate change he would move without them—a promise he fulfilled with a sweeping plan unveiled in June to slash carbon dioxide emissions and help the U.S. adapt to the impacts of climate change. In this speech, he reaffirmed that he will move forward through regulations to increase fuel efficiency for the vehicles on the road, saying he will propose new fuel efficiency incentives for heavy-duty vehicles and propose new incentives for medium- and heavy-duty trucks to run on natural gas or other alternative fuels.
Historically, State of the Union speeches can more closely resemble a wish list than a blueprint for action. Last January, Obama’s speech highlighted the importance of basic research as the foundation for innovation. “Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s; developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs; devising new material to make batteries 10 times more powerful,” he said last year, adding, “now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.” Plans from that speech, studded with talk of new gun controls, sweeping immigration reform and reforming the tax code, failed to clear the gridlocked Congress. Hindered by his low approval ratings and the high stakes election year, it remains to be seen how much action the President can take this time around.