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"Much of the innovation reshaping our world comes from the private sector," President Obama writes. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

President Barack Obama: Why I’m Optimistic

Looking ahead to the next 40 years, President Obama writes about our nature as Americans to dream big and solve problems

There is, of course, no way of knowing what new challenges and new possibilities will emerge over the next 40 years. There is no way of knowing how life will be different in 2050. But if we do what’s required in our own time, I am confident the future will be brighter for our people, and our country.

Such confidence stems largely from the genius of America. From our earliest days, we have reimagined and remade ourselves again and again. Colonists in the 1750s couldn’t have imagined that 40 years later, they would be living in a nation, independent of empire. Farmers in the first decades of the 19th century couldn’t have imagined that 40 years later, their continent would be crisscrossed by a railroad linking Eastern ports to Western markets. More recently, my parents’ generation couldn’t have imagined, as children, a world transformed by the Internet.

That we have constantly transformed ourselves is a testament to our people—our entrepreneurs and innovators, scientists and engineers, dreamers, tinkerers and makers of things. It is also a testament to our times. For thousands of years, people on every continent lived much the same way their parents and grandparents lived. But over the past few centuries, the pace of change has steadily picked up, and today new technologies and innovations are coming faster than ever, replacing the ones that preceded them.

Much of the innovation reshaping our world comes from the private sector. Rightly so. Our businesses have always been a force for dynamism. But there is also a role for government in helping us adapt to—and shape—the future. From the Erie Canal to space exploration to what became the Internet, we’ve always come together to spur transformation. That is a commitment my administration has upheld. Over the past year, we’ve made the largest investment in basic research funding in history; it’s an investment with the potential to spark new technologies, new treatments and new breakthroughs we can’t foresee.

Beyond our investments in basic research, I believe a greater focus in two areas—education and energy—can help fortify America to meet the tests and seize the opportunities of the century that lies ahead. In the 19th century, we built land-grant institutions to prepare an agricultural nation for an industrializing world. In the 20th century, we sent a generation of veterans to college on the G.I. Bill, laying the groundwork for our great middle class and decades of prosperity. Today, a similar commitment is required, not only to prepare our kids to outcompete workers around the world, but to prepare America to outcompete nations around the world. That is why we’ve taken steps to increase Pell Grants and ensure they keep pace with inflation, making college—and advanced training—more affordable for countless students. That’s why we ended a status quo that handed out billions of dollars to banks to act as unnecessary middlemen in administering student loans, and made the repayment of loans more manageable for students so they don’t graduate with crushing debts. And that’s why we’re undertaking a Race to the Top in America’s schools, challenging states to compete for tax dollars to help them deliver better results in the classroom.

Just as we are rising to meet our education challenge, we must rise to meet our energy challenge. From Franklin’s experiments with lightning to the research labs of today, we’ve always sought out new forms of energy. As I write this, the tragic oil spill along the Gulf Coast is threatening livelihoods and America’s precious natural bounty, making the need for clean energy all the more urgent. Meanwhile, other nations—from China to Germany—are racing to build a clean energy future, recognizing that it holds the key to new jobs and new industries in this young century.

If we hope to continue leading the global economy, America must place first in that race. That’s why we’re making the most significant investment in clean energy in history, offering grants to companies that produce wind turbines and solar panels, helping us double renewable energy production in the coming years. That’s why we’ve helped forge one historic agreement—and are on track to produce a second—to dramatically increase the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks. And that’s why I’ll keep fighting for comprehensive energy and climate legislation—to unleash the potential of clean energy for our economy, our security and our environment.

When I was sworn into office, I had a chance to request objects from some of America’s finest museums to put on display in the White House. One of my requests was for patent models from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History: Samuel Morse’s 1849 design for a telegraph register; Henry Williams’ 1877 design for a steamboat wheel; and John A. Peer’s 1874 design for a gear-cutting machine.

They rest on the bookshelves in the Oval Office, and I see them every day. For me, they are a reminder of what has always defined America’s people: our spirit; a restless searching for the right solution to any problem; an inclination to dream big dreams, and an insistence on making those dreams come true; an enduring faith, even in the darkest hours, that brighter days lie ahead. That is the genius of America. And that’s why, even though I can’t predict what will happen over the next 40 years, I am—and always will be—full of hope about what the future holds.

Barack Obama is the president of the United States.

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