PRESIDENT OBAMA CHALLENGES NATION TO ‘WIN THE FUTURE’…. One of the consistent traits we’ve seen from President Obama over the last two years is his reluctance to pursue goals he doesn’t expect to reach. He hates losing, so if Obama doesn’t see a path to success , he decides early on the destination isn’t worth the effort.

With this in mind, last night’s State of the Union address was different than most in that it carefully avoided the laundry list of priorities the president expected Congress to tackle in the coming year. Some of this is because White House officials wanted to present a broader vision of how to “win the future,” and some of it was simply born of necessity — there’s no point in presenting the most right-wing House majority ever with a to-do list it won’t even try to pass.

Instead, we heard Obama’s grand vision, which was very much in line with the Obama we saw before 2009. While multiple crises forced the president from his intended path the last two years, this was Obama being Obama. The address was constantly referencing the horizon, with themes we heard Candidate Obama stress in Iowa four years ago, encapsulated in an optimistic, forward-thinking vision, repeatedly referencing the importance of “winning the future,” a phrase used roughly 11 times last night.

What I liked about this is the context in which it presented the center-left perspective. Two years ago, in his first address to a joint session, Obama presented his policy agenda as a matter of simple pragmatism — we need to tackle Democratic priorities because the circumstances demand it. In 2011, Obama is presenting his agenda as a matter of nationalism — follow his lead or the nation becomes ossified and stagnant, while our global competitors surpass us. From the speech:

“[N]ations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

“So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us…. The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, ‘The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.’ Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.

“Now it’s our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. […]

“Our infrastructure used to be the best – but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a ‘D.’ We have to do better.”

The key is appreciating the rationale behind the pitch. Investing in infrastructure isn’t about boosting government spending; it’s about securing American leadership. Committing to ambitious education and energy goals isn’t about big-government liberalism; it’s about keeping the country in the lead in the midst of global competition. Rejecting permanent tax cuts for the rich and subsidies for oil companies isn’t about liberal ideals; it’s about Americans winning the future.

To do otherwise, the president suggested, and to follow the Republicans’ preferred path, is to lose. Don’t just reject the GOP’s austerity measures because they’re wrong, reject them out of a sense of national pride.

This isn’t to say Obama presented bold liberalism in a competition-based frame. That’s really not the case — this was a moderate speech, with plenty of elements clearly intended to resonate with those well outside the Democratic base (frivolous lawsuits, military recruiters on college campuses, spending freezes, etc.).

The larger vision, though, committed to the same vision Obama presented as a candidate — tackling long-term challenges with sensible, effective, progressive measures that can and should garner broad political support.

I don’t imagine congressional Republicans found any of this compelling, but after hearing the speech, I suspect they’re likely to find themselves in a national minority.

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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.