Ted Bromund’s reaction to the new Obama theme is much like mine. The only serious connection between America’s original “Sputnik moment” and President Obama’s SOTU analogy is the touting of a pretext for spending public money.
But there is another, more ironic aspect of Obama’s Sputnik theme. Perhaps you had to be in college when I was — a little more than 20 years after Sputnik — to pick up on it automatically. The late 1970s and early 1980s were years when academia was beginning to proclaim the Cold War “over.” The argument was ongoing, but for more and more academic analysts, it was received wisdom that American leaders had exaggerated the threat represented by the Soviet Union. The central symbol of that career of exaggeration was Sputnik.
I must have had at least half a dozen professors who argued that the Sputnik dynamic was a big irony, because it gave us both the moon-shot program and the unwarranted fear of a Soviet “missile gap.” The Sputnik-missile gap theme has been flogged relentlessly in academic studies (extended excerpt; full access requires a fee) and the opinion pages of popular media for the past 20 years or more. Plug “Sputnik” and “overblown fear” into any search engine and you will instantly be presented with hundreds of websites — including the left’s flagship new-media outlets — where it is argued that the WMD-intelligence debacle, or America’s supposed overreaction to 9/11, was our new “Sputnik moment.” The message has been quite clear: the space program was good, but beware presidents demanding urgent national responses on the Sputnik model.
Obama is of my vintage; we grew up hearing it argued that the U.S. had overreacted to Sputnik — partly because the act of arguing the point seemed at the time like a blow against the establishment. But there is a generation of adults behind us that grew up learning about this “overreaction” to Sputnik as simple fact. The people who were here to incarnate “Sputnik, the Original Terror Theme” are now in their 70s, at the very least. The demographic for which the word Sputnik sounds an unqualified alarm has been shrinking for decades.
Obama’s off-target Sputnik allusion seems symptomatic of his peculiar disengagement from American mainstream culture. This Chicago pol who once spoke of “Kaminsky Field” has often seemed to be invoking wholesale the alien battle cries of the 1960s-era radical left. And the flip side of that is that he still invokes, for modern purposes, the shibboleths of the culture the old leftists railed against — as if those shibboleths have not long since been tarnished, defaced, or completely torn down.