"We need to outinnovate, outeducate and outbuild the rest of the world," Obama said, spurring his first standing ovation of the night.
Amid the jingoism, the pro-business language, and the repeated call to "win the future," a question went unanswered: Who is this "we"?
To make sense of Obama's economics talk on Tuesday, or last week when he appeared at a General Electric factory with CEO Jeff Immelt - now chairman of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness - you need to adopt an unusual view of the economy. Rather than a country that allows many different businesses and investors to compete, work together, sell, buy, and hire, the Obama vision of the American economy is a nationalistic one, with Obama the boss.
Rachel Maddow, a liberal MSNBC host, aptly described it as "more of a CEO-style pep talk than a football-rally style pep talk." We are all shareholders and employees of America Inc.
This corporate mind-set upsets liberals, but it should upset conservatives more. While Maddow called the address "a prayer to the free market," Obama's speech, like the economic vision he has been laying out for a year, is something else - something that would resonate more overseas.
"Germany is the model," said Immelt last year, addressing exporters and bankers as the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that subsidizes exports. Immelt also praised Japan's model of "government and business working as a pack." He showed envy for China's "incredible unanimity of purpose from top to bottom."
Obama isn't quite as forthright as his economic adviser Immelt, but you see the same economic nationalism in everything he says on the economy these days. On Tuesday night he called for "a new era of cooperation," so that the United States can "win the future." Using capitalist buzzwords like "investment," Obama called for more government spending on research and continued government subsidy of "green" technology like solar panels and electric cars.
So it's not capitalism, but it's also not the "Marxism" with which many conservative pundits have charged Obama. You can call it corporate socialism or corporatism.
It's also economic nationalism. In Obama's America Inc., vision, all of the United States is competing against China, Germany, India and Spain in Olympic solar panel making, the biotechnology sprints, and the manufacturing relay.
Obama sounded this note as early as last April: "If we stand on the sidelines," he told a crowd of exporters last April, "while they [China and Germany] go after those customers, we'll lose out on the chance to create the good jobs our workers need right here at home. That's why standing on the sidelines is not what we intend to do. ... We need to up our game." Obama's "game," of course, is subsidies and bailouts.
The jingoistic rhetoric also enables Obama to avoid a trap into which his Democratic predecessors fell. When liberal Democrats of the past called for this sort of managed economy in which business does the rowing while government steers, they often used expressions like, "the United States is the only Western nation that doesn't" support or control one industry or another. With American voters, such Europe-envy doesn't sell.
Obama has brilliantly framed the same vision the opposite way: We can't let China or Europe beat us on green energy or biotechnology! This touches our patriotic hearts and plays to our competitive spirit.
But it also undermines our free market and, in the long run, stultifies our economy. Rather than investors and entrepreneurs trying to anticipate and meet consumer demand, we now have GE or made-for-subsidy startups trying to lobby for and receive subsidies.
All politicians love their moonshots and Manhattan Projects, and Obama's national-greatness liberalism feeds into such schemes. "With more research and incentives," Obama said, referring to subsidies, "we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015."
This is one of those "big things" Obama was calling for, requiring a huge investment for charging stations, battery factories, and more. It's also picking a winner in an area where nobody can predict what will work.
Much of the media is being fooled into calling this capitalism, because he uses the word "competition," speaks favorably of corporate profits, and earns the applause of Big Business. But just as the devil can quote Scripture, Obama can quote Reagan for his own purposes.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.