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Can America Compete Against a Rising Young World?

It is fitting that the grand theme of President Obama's State of the Union speech was "winning the future," because it is clear that the future many of us have been tracing through stories and statistics has finally arrived. It's a future rooted in entrepreneurship, innovation, globalization and technology—but one in which America's role is deeply uncertain. Last night, President Obama addressed those uncertainties with confidence and clarity.

In a stroke, the 2011 State of the Union speech turned the page on the worldview of the past decade. It's long overdue. The urgency of America's security and financial problems in the '00s preoccupied policy-makers to such an extent that larger trends in the world were ignored. While we went stomping around the world going after terrorists and turned the federal budget inside out to prop up diseased and decaying old institutions, new economic competitors incubated, largely out of sight and certainly out of mind.

They have now emerged, nearly full-grown. China, of course, heads the list, but China has been on the radar for a while. The new kids on the block are the rising "Young World" nations like India, Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam: countries powered by overwhelming numbers of young people enjoying unprecedented access to information, thanks to the rapid spread of networks and mobile devices. Empowered by new possibilities and emboldened by rising expectations, the Young World is casting aside the tired old ideas of the past and embracing entrepreneurial innovation as the means to social development as well as economic prosperity.

Countries that previously groaned under the weight of "too many mouths to feed" are starting to reap a demographic dividend by mobilizing more hands to work and more minds to think. And while many of their success stories are great news for parts of the world where recent history has been unkind if not tragic, they represent a real challenge for the established economies of North America, Europe and North Asia.

All of this was predictable and predicted, but it comes as a shock if you weren't paying attention.

Call January 25, 2011 the day America woke up. And fortunately, America in 2011 has a president who understands this situation for what it is: part a threat to our prestige and prosperity, part an invitation to tap into forces that could help solve some of our problems, and definitely an opportunity to turn down the volume on our increasingly shrill, divisive and backward-looking political discourse.

The nature of the challenge posed by the rise of the Young World is very different from anything America has encountered. These countries are not a military threat. They are not, generally speaking, ideological enemies. In fact, they embrace our values, sometimes to a fault.

They are competitors, perhaps—but also potential partners and certainly potential customers. Economists here wonder what might stimulate demand enough to drag the U.S. out of the doldrums. How about the increasing buying power of 300 million middle-class Indians with a taste for American brands? But then, what about the threat of all those Indian doctors and engineers taking our jobs? It's all so complicated!

The complexity of the global economic issues of the 2010s is a poor fit for the old metaphors of 20th century American politics. So last night, President Obama turned to a different set of linguistic tropes.

Concepts like innovation, entrepreneurship, the knowledge economy, globalization, and the central role of technology were ushered out of the cloakrooms of business theory and given prime seats at the forefront of our political discourse. The work of business leaders was framed in terms of contributing to broader social and economic development and restoring national greatness. The President called for investment in infrastructure and education, but attempted to pre-empt ideological objections to "big government spending" by casting them as essential building blocks for privately-generated economic prosperity. President Obama even used the timeworn custom of spotlighting handpicked "ordinary Americans" in the gallery to praise the work of inventors, small business owners, and people who had reinvented their careers, rather than focus on solely on the usual soldiers, teachers, firefighters and community activists.

Whether the President can convince Congress to support policies that go along with these ideas remains to be seen. A large part of the political establishment in both parties is deeply invested in old rhetoric and old approaches, and is more comfortable fighting familiar battles against familiar enemies. To them, the challenges of the Young World are an unwelcome distraction from business as usual.

It is encouraging, however, that for at least one night, the American president was able to articulate the challenges of the coming decade in such a clear and systematic way, and give us a blueprint for winning the future. Because whether we choose to accept it or not, the future is here.

Read more State of the Union coverage

Rob Salkowitz is author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entrepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up. Follow him @robsalk.