On Tuesday night, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address and, in broad strokes and with stories of inspiration, he painted a picture of where we have been as a nation.

Americans heard confident words that we will come through this recession if we spend more money for education, research and development, and public infrastructure. Obama believes these are investments that support the work of the private sector and stimulate private investment.

Obama was conciliatory to the new Republican majority in the U.S. House and made every effort to feature the successes of the private sector as the engine of innovation, jobs and opportunity.

He did not scold the Supreme Court or taunt the GOP about obstructionism. There was no blame placed on the previous administration. It was a night to be nice and move forward.

His message was a call for cooperation from a Congress whose control now is split between a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House. “We will move forward together, or not at all,” said the president.

That may seem obvious, but it was worth stating the facts. It also reflected the message sent by voters in the November elections that we all have had enough of the bickering, posturing and business as usual.

The president attempted to kindle the pride of Americans by a recitation of our accomplishments. His was a call to our competitive spirit.

The Republican response was far more cautionary and pointedly suggested that limited government, liberty and personal responsibility is the prescription to grow our collective prosperity, not more government spending.

Though the president proposed a five-year freeze on discretionary, non-entitlement spending, Republicans stated their intent to make far more dramatic cuts, including their own operating budget for Congress. This and other symbolic gestures were part of the theatrics of our government’s annual convention.

If America’s entrepreneurial small businesses were the heroes of the president’s speech, the villains were the special interest groups – those big, bad insurance companies, those smug oil executives and those demon lobbyists who have rewritten the tax codes for the benefit of the rich.

The very enterprises whose profits fuel our individual retirement accounts, employ our citizens and provide security were made out to be the bad guys of public policy.

That’s not to say that special interests are not working overtime to get a competitive advantage via public policy, but the last time I looked, only women and men elected by the voters are allowed to vote on the floor of the Senate or the House.

If they are pandering to special interests, then shame on us for not holding them accountable.

Rep. Paul Ryan, who delivered the Republican response to the president’s address, also captured the mood of the evening when he said, “Americans are skeptical of both political parties, and that skepticism is justified – especially when it comes to spending. So hold all of us accountable.”

In the vernacular of Sarah Palin, you betcha we will.

The only serious disappointment of the evening was that both Obama and Ryan avoided squarely addressing the two deadly entitlement programs that are driving our nation’s budget beyond the breaking point: Social Security and Medicare.

The president wants to reduce health care costs, but not the benefits of Medicare. He wants to strengthen Social Security, but “without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.”

Then, what is he suggesting?

Ryan, who is branding himself as a deficit hawk, also seemed to fly around the issues rather than swooping down to attack the problem. He was quick to lambaste the new health care reform act but otherwise stayed clear of the political kill zone by avoiding specifics.

If fixing these systems means cutting services, raising the retirement age, changing eligibility, means-testing benefits and raising taxes, then they need to say it! Whether they get re-elected or not, the stubborn facts won’t change. These programs are underfunded, overly generous and bankrupting us.

What may get in the way of such proposals, however, is our sense that things are getting better and that tough decisions can be avoided or postponed. The stock market is up, consumer spending is up and employment is up, fueled in part by deficit spending in Washington. Avoiding the issues may be a strategy for getting re-elected, but it won’t solve the problems that just won’t go away.

What do you think, and what are you going to do about it? 

Tony Payne is a lifelong Maine resident active in business, civic and political affairs. He can be reached at: [email protected]