In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama pointed to the looming possibility of the U.S. falling behind. Whereas it was a leader in the last century, it is now losing its position.

Innovation, education, infrastructure, competitiveness, the elimination of superfluous government offices, fiscal responsibility, cooperation between rival political parties —those are themes of this year’s message on the state of the Union, which Barack Obama could address in other parliaments, not just in the American Congress.

Professor David Gergen of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government concentrated on American competitiveness in his reflections on Obama’s address. In the last century, America was the leader in the area of education: Today, the U.S. is only ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees and 27th in the proportion of graduates of technical and scientific disciplines. If education and research in mathematics and the natural sciences do not become a priority, America will not be able to stand up to the competition.

Gergen says that he was disappointed when he saw commentators on the left like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich criticize Obama’s insistence as a concession to business —despite the fact that the incentive for these changes came from elsewhere, from the national academies for science, research and technical disciplines and long before Obama became president.

He was similarly disenchanted with those conservatives who saw in Obama’s plans for increasing competitiveness mainly efforts to maintain inordinately big government, which would have to support these plans financially.

Nor was he pleased with the media, which gazed on the report on the state of the Union primarily with political eyes: Will the president’s popularity in the polls grow? How will Republican opponent Congressman Paul Ryan — or, alternatively, tea party chairwoman Michele Bachman — react to his speech?

In Gergen’s view, one ought to think primarily about whether the U.S. is in any shape to compete.

A Step Toward the 2012 Elections

Gergen, who has already worked as an adviser to four American presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton) and today works as a CNN commentator, belongs to the class of American intellectuals who realize that the United States stands once again at a crossroads.

President Obama said it loud and clear: America is lagging behind, and the current generation is experiencing competition with China, India and others — something similar to when the Soviet Union surprisingly launched Sputnik 50 years ago and surpassed the United States. Something must be done about it.

At the same time, the president in his Tuesday address effectively gave the impression that he has pulled himself together from the November defeat in the congressional elections. He was helped a little by signs of economic recovery, which strengthen the conviction that he has coped successfully with the worst phase of the crisis. In December, he managed to reach a compromise on tax relief in Congress, and in his speech he indicated a willingness to modify some elements of the approved health care reform.

His self-confidence is also boosted by recent foreign policy successes — from his trip to India to the gradual withdrawal from Iraq, to the NATO summit and re-engagement of Russia, to indications from the Chinese president that China will contribute to reducing the nuclear threat emanating from North Korea. To some degree Obama was also helped by the tragedy in Tucson, after which a more favorable emotional atmosphere predominated in Congress. A good number of rivals from the two political camps sat next to each other during the address.

Obama also sought a compromise between necessary budget cuts and the need to invest in development. It appears that in his speech, he was engaging and reaching out to centrist voters, whom he has been slowly losing. He will still have to show, however, that he has succeeded at creating job opportunities and that the prospective improvement should be attributed to him as a future candidate in the presidential elections of 2012.

In the meantime he is helped by one circumstance that won’t likely change soon: The internally disarrayed Republicans don’t give the impression that they have far better solutions or better candidates for the next elections.

Your Country Needs You

President Obama, like many American statesmen, has the ability to reframe the public debate in a time of crisis and adjust it so that it emphasizes not only the burden of duties, but also — in the spirit of American tradition — the optimistic vision of correction, around which the population can unite. He spoke of the need for “American innovation,” of the always-living “American Dream,” of the ability of Americans to discover and reshape themselves again and again and achieve great aims.

He spoke on reform in education, on investments, on the responsibility of parents, on the need for high-quality schools and on the importance of good teachers. Indeed — he appealed to young listeners among the 43 million viewers following his speech — “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation* … become a teacher. Your country needs you.”

We’re closer to America than many of us think.

(The author is honorary president of IVO [Institute for Public Affairs] and former ambassador to the U.S.)

*Editor’s Note: This quote was accurately translated from the article’s original text. However, the actual quote from the State of the Union speech reads: “If you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher. Your country needs you.”