AMERICAN GREATNESS LIBERALISM…. One of the more robust applause lines in the State of the Union address came when President Obama said, “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”

E.J. Dionne Jr. chatted with Vice President Biden yesterday, and brought up the line. Biden “replied emphatically” on the subject, rejecting the notion that “we just can’t make this transition in the 21st century.”

Dionne explained quite well why a “hidden political issue of the 2010 elections” is actually the “larger debate over how to maintain American preeminence.”

Beneath the predictable back-and-forth between Obama and his Republican adversaries over government spending lies a substantively important difference over how the United States can maintain its global leadership.

For Republicans, American power is rooted largely in military might and showing a tough and resolute face to the world. They would rely on tax cuts as the one and only spur to economic growth.

Obama, Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, believe that American power depends ultimately on the American economy, and that government has an essential role to play in fostering the next generation of growth.

Notice that when Obama spoke about keeping America in first place, he said not a word about the military. He referred instead to the efforts of our competitors in the public sphere of the economy, and of our past complacency.

“Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse,” Obama said [in the State of the Union]. “Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations aren’t standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They’re making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.”

Suddenly, Obama’s approach is not about old-fashioned Democratic spending. It’s about patriotism, competing successfully, investing to maintain American economic leadership.

Republicans may prefer to avoid this argument, but it’s reasonable to think just about every policy dispute on the American landscape can, and probably should, be reframed to answer the question: how does this position the United States for global competition in the 21st century?

Every major power on the planet offers universal health care to its citizens — except us. This puts America at a competitive disadvantage, undermines wages, creates job lock, and stunts entrepreneurship. Republicans are satisfied with this, because their goal is to prevent “big government,” not position the United States for a competitive future. Are Americans OK with that?

Countries like China intend to create the world strongest system of higher education. Are Americans prepared to let that happen? A variety of rivals are preparing to dominate the next phase of the energy revolution. Will the United States deliberately skip the race and fall behind?

To keep America on top, the government is going to have to make real investments and establish a new foundation for growth. Republicans are staunchly opposed to making those investments and don’t see the need for such a foundation.

So, let’s have the debate, and take it out of the left-right dynamic and put it the global-competition dynamic. Why not make it the centerpiece of the 2010 elections?

I’ve long believed it creates an opportunity for American Greatness Liberalism — progressive ideas, investments, and priorities needed to keep the U.S. on top for the long haul.

Obama/Biden have a plan to maintain American preeminence in the 21st century; Republicans don’t. Voters can decide whether to look forward or backward.

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Steve Benen

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.