By declaring in his State of the Union speech that "deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan," President Barack Obama made an important, prime-time bid to focus the public's attention on the nation's future.

Slashing budget deficits and debt is essential, but so is government investment to lay the groundwork for the American people to prosper in the competitive global economy.

Whether it's called investing or spending, it has become as partisan as everything else in Washington. But by either name, the government needs to modernize the nation's infrastructure, push toward energy independence, drive scientific advances and better educate the American workforce. That would help create the conditions for the middle class to thrive, and preserve the American dream of a better life for those willing to work.

A nation with crumbling bridges, ports and highways and unreliable power grids that make it difficult and costly to get products to market won't attract business investment and jobs.

Abandoning the sort of basic scientific research that seeded the development of the Internet and the mapping of the human genome would stifle the innovation needed to create new industries.

Right now the nation produces more oil than in years past, buys less foreign oil and produces more natural gas than ever before. But if the government doesn't support research leading to pioneering wind and solar energy technology, high-tech batteries and alternative-fuel vehicles, we can kiss the jobs those industries will create good-bye.

If we fail to modernize our schools, improve technical training, make college more affordable -- for instance, by directing aid to those that are less expensive and provide good value -- jobs will flee to nations whose workers are better equipped.

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To do those things, Washington has to put the federal government's finances on a sustainable course. There has been progress: Growth in health care spending has slowed dramatically for four years and the Congressional Budget Office projects a federal budget deficit of $845 billion in 2013 -- below $1 trillion for the first time in four years. More is needed.

Spending on entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid must be reined in. And the tax code should be reformed by reducing rates while eliminating loopholes and deductions in such a way that cuts deficits and raises new revenue for public investments.

The federal government must not continue lurching from one ginned up crisis to the next while ignoring the nation's long-term challenges.