Dear President-elect Biden:
Conventional wisdom holds that you will not be able to accomplish anything of importance given a Republican majority in the Senate, a thin Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and continuing challenges to the vote count.
Irreconcilable divisions in an embittered body politic supposedly will lead to political stalemate. The Financial Times has already called you a “lame duck president” even before you take office.
There is one issue on which you can build bipartisan support, capture the imagination of the country, and make your presidency one of historic importance. That issue is rebuilding America’s pre-eminence in high-technology industry.
Asia now overshadows the United States as a manufacturing power. Taiwan and South Korea lead in chip fabrication, China leads in telecommunications equipment, and Japan leads in many fields of electronics. China is challenging the US in the technologies that hold the key to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, most of all in artificial intelligence.
During the election campaign, you rightly called attention to the failure of the Trump administration’s tariff policies, which hurt the US more than China. The Trump administration’s restrictions on technology exports to China, moreover, will hurt the US, by shifting research and development away from American companies to their Chinese competitors.
Americans understand that they are at risk of becoming second best in a world of digital outcomes, at the expense of their prosperity and security. The outgoing administration failed to match its rhetoric with effective action.
You have a unique opportunity. In your campaign platform, you emphasized investment in technology. A bipartisan consensus is building on the need for aggressive government action to ensure American technological superiority, for example in the proposed Endless Frontier Act co-sponsored by Senators Chuck Schumer (Dem – NY) and Todd Young (Rep – IN), and in the call by Senator Marco Rubio (Rep – FL) for a national industry policy. Seize the issue and make it the driving force of your presidency.
Propose a set of federal initiatives on the scale of the Manhattan Project to advance quantum computing, artificial intelligence, materials science and nuclear fission and fusion energy. Propose emergency legislation to expedite visas for the scientists, engineers and skilled workers the US needs to staff those programs.
Implement sweeping tax credits for capital investment and R&D. Enact an emergency program to rebuild America’s semiconductor manufacturing, which has fallen from 100% of the world total when the US invented the industry to barely 10% today.
Create a National Telecommunications Authority to restore domestic manufacturing capacity in communications equipment. Tell America’s allies in Europe and Asia that the US is taking the global lead in high-tech R&D and investment, and ask them to join forces in the development and commercialization of game-changing technologies.
Take the Defense Department back from the big defense contractors and restore military R&D to the central role it had when Harold Brown was defense secretary in the Jimmy Carter administration. Many of the military technologies that won the Cold War began with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) grants under Brown’s guidance.
Propose constitutional safeguards to protect the privacy of Americans’ personal data while building the artificial intelligence systems required to suppress the Covid-19 epidemic on models that Taiwan and South Korea have used with success.
Respond to the Chinese challenge through superior American innovation. The Trump administration’s combination of tariffs and technology restrictions was a lose-lose policy. Offer a win-win policy instead: China wants to dominate the technologies that underlie the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Ask America and its allies to do it first and better.
Launch a refreshed version of the 1958 Defense Education Act, a response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first spacecraft. Federal funding for science and engineering education helped double the number of graduates in those fields by 1970.
That talent pool put a man on the moon, invented the digital age and won the Cold War. Tell the country that China’s ascendancy is the Sputnik moment of our generation, and call on America’s young people to rise to the challenge just as their grandparents did in their time.
If you do this, the country will rally behind you. Instead of endless wrangling about bailouts of a hollowed-out economy and mutual recrimination among ethnic and tribal constituencies, ask Congress to help you kickstart the economy of the future.
Offer America’s young people a vision for the future and a hope for your country’s greatness in the spirit of John F Kennedy. Confound the nay-sayers. Ignore the rancor in the ranks of your own party, and appeal to those in the Republican Party who sincerely want to make America great again.
– The Editors