NATIONAL GREATNESS LIBERALISM…. Paul Glastris noted yesterday that President Obama, with varying degrees of subtlety, incorporated themes of American exceptionalism into his State of the Union address. Mark Kleiman had a related item last night, touching on an even broader thematic endeavor.

Sometimes your opponents can see what you’re doing more clearly than your friends can. Some progressives were put off by the rather Reaganesque rhetoric of the State of the Union address, but Mark Thiessen of AEI recognized it for what it was: an attempt to harness “American exceptionalism” to pull the plough of activist government. When Wes Clark tried the same thing either Andy Sabl or I called it “the liberalism of national greatness.” I thought it was a winner then, and I think it’s a winner now.

So do I.

There’s a distinction to be made between nationalism and jingoism, and the message we heard from the president this week falls comfortably into the former. This isn’t nationalism in the lazy, divisive, self-satisfying sense, but rather, it’s more of a competition-based nationalism — there’s a competitive global marketplace, and those who want America to thrive need to make decisions that bolster and enhance our position as a leader.

The “national greatness” frame has traditionally been associated with conservatives, but there’s no reason to keep it that way. Indeed, it’s past time to flip it.

Every major power on the planet offers health care to its citizens, for example. The left believes part of America’s greatness comes with not leaving millions of our neighbors behind, and putting the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage in the process. The right believes it’s more important to reject “big government.”

Countries like China intend to create the world’s 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?

We know how conservatives answer those questions — if making investments that keep America on top means spending money, then it’s not worth the cost. It’s better, the right believes, to stay put and watch global competitors pass us by. The left, in contrast, sees government making real investments and establishing a new foundation as keys to future growth.

One approach prioritizes national greatness; the other prioritizes ideological ends about tax rates and the size of government.

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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.