The trans-Atlantic economic contrast is shaping up as pitting British austerity against, not U.S. investment, but a do-little American muddle.

President Obama’s State of the Union Address offered him the opportunity to hold up a beacon of policy that invests for the future while taking credible steps to control future deficits.

Speaking not long after Britain, in the process of making severe cuts in spending, reported a shrinking economy in the fourth quarter of 2010, Obama instead delivered a vague mix of un-costed investments and symbolic cuts in discretionary spending.

This of course is not entirely the U.S. administration’s fault; it must work with an austerity-happy Republican party that controls the House of Representatives and in service to an electorate which appears to have lost faith in the ability of its leaders to invest wisely. That virtually ensures a muddle in which serious cuts will be elusive and investments watery.

In contrast, even a delicate coalition like the one in power in Britain can ram through Parliament a full-bodied program of spending cuts and tax hikes.