State of the Union address 2011

Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

It’s called the State of the Union Address, but the speech President Obama delivered last night might as well have been called the “State of the Future” address.

“The future is ours to win,” he said. “We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.”

Obama’s got it exactly right when it comes to the importance of innovation for our nation’s future (and the world’s, for that matter). Last night he asked Congress and the rest of the country to put our resources in the the right places, and for the right reasons.

For instance, he called for us to get 80% of our power from renewables by 2035.

Energy, of course, is what makes every other technology possible. And our over-dependence on just one source, petroleum, puts us in a bad way. Reducing our dependence on King Oil is essential just from a national security standpoint. But  the environmental and economic benefits are equally important. Getting most of our energy from homegrown, renewable sources will strengthen the country in countless ways.

Obama also, boldly, called for 1 million electric cars on our roads by 2015.

Electric Vehicles might very well be the answer to a lot of our energy problems. No fuel in the tank means no oil to secure from less-than-reliable sources. Of course that begs the question of where the electricity comes from. Right now we get most of our electric power from coal. That has to change for EVs to be part of the solution rather than adding to the problem.

Obama’s got the right idea about how to foster these and other important innovations.

“Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.”

We’re seeing this played out right now in our national space program. Private companies are on the verge of taking over the job of sending astronauts and supplies to low Earth orbit. Once that happens, the government will be able to focus on extending our presence beyond low Earth orbit, where, eventually, private enterprise will again follow.

And speaking of space,

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” the President said last night. “Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

Here’s hoping enough members of Congress agree with these priorities to pass meaningful legislation. In the meantime, the right tone being set at the top is a huge step in the right direction.