EDUCATE TO INNOVATE…. Earlier this year, President Obama was showing so much enthusiasm and interest in science and scientific integrity that one observer characterized him as “almost strident” on the issue. The description put a negative spin on what I consider to be one of the president’s most endearing qualities — I can’t think of a modern president who speaks as often and as enthusiastically about science as Obama.

This was especially true yesterday, when the president hosted a White House event to unveil a new “Educate to Innovate” initiative, intended to improve the science and math scores of American students. A variety of scientists and inventors were on hand for the event — including Adam and Jaime from “Mythbusters,” who the president called out by name — and Obama not only talked up administration efforts, he emphasized the importance of changing public attitudes.

I was especially pleased to hear that, starting in 2010, there will be an annual White House Science Fair. The president explained, “Today, I’m announcing that we’re going to have an annual science fair at the White House with the winners of national competitions in science and technology. If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example. We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.”

But the part of Obama’s remarks that had me thinking long after I’d finished watching was the section on educational efforts overseas.

The president said:

“You know, I was in Asia, I think many of you are aware, for a week, and I was having lunch with the President of South Korea, President Lee. And I was interested in education policy — they’ve grown enormously over the last 40 years. And I asked him, what are the biggest challenges in your education policy? He said, ‘The biggest challenge that I have is that my parents are too demanding.’ (Laughter.) He said, ‘Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education.’ He said, ‘I’ve had to import thousands of foreign teachers because they’re all insisting that Korean children have to learn English in elementary school.’ That was the biggest education challenge that he had, was an insistence, a demand from parents for excellence in the schools.

“And the same thing was true when I went to China. I was talking to the mayor of Shanghai, and I asked him about how he was doing recruiting teachers, given that they’ve got 25 million people in this one city. He said, ‘We don’t have problems recruiting teachers because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions. ‘

“That gives you a sense of what’s happening around the world. There is a hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for science and math and technology and learning. That used to be what we were about. That’s what we’re going to be about again.”

I hope that’s true, because our future depends on it.

This also helps set up a helpful juxtaposition. At this point, the nation’s leading Democrat is a dynamic president who values science, innovation, and learning. One of the nation’s leading Republicans is a half-term governor who rejects evolutionary biology and who disdains elites with “Ivy League educations.”

Whether the United States is able to maintain its role as the global leader will depend on which side of this divide wins.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.