I’d expect several trial balloons about what the President will discuss in the State of the Union, and we already have one informed by his recent speeches: “competitiveness.” I agree with both Krugman and Robert Reich on this; if competitiveness is used as a frame to call for new investments, particularly in infrastructure and education, while fending off right-wing austerity, then great. If it’s a way to suggest that manufacturing companies should cut payrolls, or America should pass a bunch of corporate-written free trade agreements, or that we should do whatever’s on the mind of the Jeffrey Immelts of the world, then, well, not so great.

But look! The Wall Street Journal is out with one of the first trial balloons on the State of the Union address, and in fact, it claims the President will use the speech to call for new investments, particularly in infrastructure and education.

President Barack Obama will call for new government spending on infrastructure, education and research in his State of the Union address Tuesday, sharpening his response to Republicans in Congress who are demanding deep budget cuts, people familiar with the speech said.

Mr. Obama will argue that the U.S., even while trying to reduce its budget deficit, must make targeted investments to foster job growth and boost U.S. competitiveness in the world economy. The new spending could include initiatives aimed at building the renewable-energy sector—which received billions of dollars in stimulus funding—and rebuilding roads to improve transportation, people familiar with the matter said. Money to restructure the No Child Left Behind law’s testing mandates and institute more competitive grants also could be included.

While proposing new spending, Mr. Obama also will lay out significant budget cuts elsewhere, people familiar with the plans say, though they will likely fall short of what Republican lawmakers have requested.

Reading on, the budget cuts would be “targeted” and focused on “duplicative or dysfunctional federal programs.” Social Security is not mentioned at all in the story.

Let’s just say this is a far, far better opening bid than I expected. Instead of using competitiveness in the worst sense of the term, it uses it in the best; saying that in order to keep our economic footing as a nation we have to invest in what can build on our success. This isn’t designed to make Republicans happy, to be sure. It’s not offensive to corporations, necessarily – they like supplying the government for infrastructure, and having their R&D subsidized. But it’s most certainly not as pre-compromised as some other Obama-era initiatives. It offers a chance to reclaim “competitiveness” and frame it as investment, which is an offshoot of reclaiming patriotism as pride in American work and American production.

In addition to this, one of Obama’s top lieutenants in the Senate, Dick Durbin, who himself voted for the cat food commission report, gave a speech yesterday saying basically that any spending cuts should wait until the economy recovers fully. So now we see a left flank emerging – no spending cuts for now – to counteract the right flank of trillions in cuts, including $125 billion in this fiscal year.

The options were to get ready for a fight or to try and prove deficit-cutting bona fides. We’ve seen some of the latter from the President recently – the discretionary spending freeze, the pay freeze for government workers. The State of the Union is setting up as more like the former, at least in this rendering.

…I should add that the weekly address this week uses the “competitiveness” frame to talk about opening up new markets around the world, which is a not-too-subtle code for corporate-written free trade agreements.