Obama's Not the First to Use 'Sputnik Moment'

The phrase belongs to the president now, though.


Sputnik is back, baby. In one of the State of the Union sound bites leaked ahead of time, and one of the lines for which the speech will be remembered, President Obama said that this generation is encountering its “Sputnik moment”--a shocking turning point which spurs the country to step up its efforts to meet an unforeseen, startling challenge.

It’s a theme that the president has toyed with on and off for some time, and it’s one that other pols—including Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney--have used for several years as well.

Obama talked about a “Sputnik moment” at a North Carolina community college in early December, 2010 calling for a dramatic increase in education and science spending. As early in his tenure as October, 2009 Obama was using the Sputnik example to argue for further spending in those areas. Speaking while awarding the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, he said:

…it was in the years that followed the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, that the United States would create DARPA, NASA, and the National Defense Education Act, which helped improve math and science education from grade school to graduate school … And today, we face more complex challenges than generations past … At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we can't afford to invest in science, that it's a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I could not disagree more. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security and our health, and our way of life than it has ever been.

This evening also wasn’t the first time Obama used the specific “Sputnik moment” phrase; though he used it in a broader context than he previously had. Speaking at the National Academy of Sciences in April, 2009 about America’s dependence on foreign energy, the president said, “There will be no single Sputnik moment for this generation's challenges to break our dependence on fossil fuels. In many ways, this makes the challenge even tougher to solve, and makes it all the more important to keep our eyes fixed on the work ahead.” And in March of that year the San Jose Mercury News reported that “energy experts and officials in the Obama administration see a similar ‘Sputnik moment,’ urgent and global in scope, over energy use and climate change.” [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

During the 2008 presidential primaries, Sputnik was more of a staple in Hillary Clinton’s campaign speeches (which makes sense--she was actually alive when Sputnik was launched whereas Obama was still a few years from entering the scene). Speaking at the Carnegie Institution for Science on October 4, 2007--the 50th anniversary of Sputnik’s launch--then-Sen. Clinton said that she had “been fascinated by Sputnik ever since I was a little girl and as I have moved on in life … I have spent time reflecting on what Sputnik meant and what our nation did in response.”

Clinton and Obama aren’t the only national figures to use Sputnik rhetorically. Then-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, testifying before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in May, 2005, warned that, “Our generation has not had a Sputnik moment…yet. But our Sputnik is on its way.” He was speaking about education. [See editorial cartoons about Obama.]

So were then-Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota when they spoke to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in April, 2007. “One thing we haven't been successful at is creating a sense of urgency about this,” Napolitano said. “We haven't had a Sputnik moment.” Agreed Pawlenty: “The Sputnik moment will come, but it may come too late for us to fix things.”

Of course the bully pulpit is a different kind of stage and however many other pols have been bandying around the concept of a “Sputnik moment,” it belongs to the president now.

One last note on the "Sputnik" talking point. The American Presidency Project have put the public papers of the presidents online, searchable. Starting in the 1970s, presidents tended to mention Sputnik about a half-dozen times per decade. Obama's mentioned it seven times as president, including this evening.

Sputnik's back, baby.

  • Read A Brief History of the State of the Union.
  • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.