Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four U.S. presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.
(CNN) -- President Obama promises to focus his State of the Union tonight on one of the most important domestic questions we have faced in years. Whether he will succeed in moving the nation forward will depend not only on his own leadership but on the willingness of others -- the left, the right and the media -- to put the country first.
The question: Will the United States renew its capacity to compete in global markets so that we create quality jobs for our people here at home? If we do, America's best days are still ahead; if we fail, they will soon be far behind. It's about that simple.
For more than a century, we didn't have to worry much about our greatness as a people. But times have changed. We may be the nation that astonished the world by building a transcontinental railroad. But today, as the president pointed out last month in a visit to North Carolina, we find that Shanghai in China has built more high-speed rail in a year than we have built in the past 30 years.
For most of the 20th century, we were No. 1 in the world in education; today, we are ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees, 18th in high school graduation rates among industrialized nations and 27th in the proportion of science and engineering degrees. China now graduates more English-trained engineers than the U.S. and has become the world's No. 1 exporter in high technology.
As others have become more competitive and we have slowed, American jobs have been disappearing. According to a 2010 report by a national competitiveness commission sponsored by the National Academies of Science and Engineering, along with the Institute of Medicine, GE has now placed the majority of its R&D personnel outside the U.S. The number of Americans employed in manufacturing in the U.S. computer industry is now lower than when the first personal computer was built in 1975. With foreign-made cars growing in popularity, the number of auto jobs in Michigan has dropped from 460,000 in 1970 to 98,000 today.
Can we turn things around? No one is certain, but the competitiveness commission -- representing some of the best minds in the country -- believes we still have a chance. In the 2010 report, its top four recommendations, in descending order of importance, were:
1. Upgrade U.S. K-12 education in science and math to a leading position by global standards.
2. Double real federal investment in basic research in math, the physical sciences and engineering over the next seven years, while maintaining the recent doubling in bioscience research.
3. Encourage more U.S. citizens to pursue careers in math, science and engineering.
4. Rebuild the nation's "competitive ecosystem" by introducing reforms in our patent, immigration and litigation policies.
None of this is all that expensive. The total annual costs of all of the commission's recommendations, it estimates, would be less than we spend on cigarettes each year -- with $60 billion left over.
How should we judge the president's speech tonight? For starters, we should ask whether he plans a sensible, inexpensive agenda like this or whether, in the name of competition and innovation, he lards it up with a lot of other goodies so beloved by some in his party. Lean and mean is the only way to go.
Second, we should ask whether he accompanies his "investments" in competition with bold, genuine cuts in spending elsewhere in the budget. Those in the private sector arguing for a competitiveness agenda are equally adamant that the nation must simultaneously get its financial house in order. As the president himself has argued, we can't compete with China if we keep borrowing from China.
So, the president faces high bars tonight. But if he clears them, will those who listen be willing to pay serious attention, or will we see more of the caterwauling of recent days?
It has been disappointing this past week to see leading intellectuals on the left greet the competitiveness agenda with such cynicism. Both Paul Krugman and Bob Reich -- whom I like and respect -- have basically argued that Obama is just trying to please the scions of corporate America, people who have fleeced the country in recent years. They don't pay any attention to the fact that the push for a competitive agenda really originated elsewhere -- in the National Academies, for example -- and began long before Obama ran for president. Why can't they give him credit for embracing what scientists and engineers are telling us?
It has been equally disappointing to see the right jump all over Obama's plan to invest in competitiveness as if it is an obvious ruse to protect a swollen federal government. Why can't they give the man a fair hearing before dismissing his efforts? And why in the world would they insist on cutting funds in R&D in science, math, engineering and technology?
Surely, there are good conservatives like Sen. Lamar Alexander -- a longtime champion of competitiveness -- who can help bring the party to a more balanced perspective.
Finally, it has been disappointing to see that many in the media are looking at the State of the Union in almost purely political terms: Will this speech help Obama occupy the center? Will his poll numbers continue to go up? Who will be sitting with whom on the floor? And who will give a better response, Rep. Paul Ryan or Rep. Michele Bachmann?
But where is the analysis of why the country is losing out to Asian competitors and what can be done about it? Where is the fundamental seriousness that the times require?
President Obama has rightly said that we now face "a Sputnik moment." Back a half-century ago, when Ike and then Kennedy were in the White House, we rose to the occasion. Do we still have the right stuff? That's the deeper question lingering in the air.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.