What is being overlooked here, imo, is the factor that drove the Apollo program to such fantastic feats on its relatively short timescale. That type of commitment and effort is _never_ going to be undertaken without the threat of another country topping the US. Barring the type of wake-up-call moment like Sputnik or Gagarin, the necessary desire to get us to the aspirational next level will continue on this iterative path of fits and starts.
The key factor that allowed for Mercury -> Gemini -> Apollo was the race to the moon. Right now we have these wishy-washy blurred objectives like wouldn't it be great to visit an asteroid or maybe we'll be walking on Mars in 20 years. F that. We really need a challenger. China. Like the title says, they need to get to Mars. Will them putting something real into orbit do the trick? Is that even attainable given their current launch capabilities (I think so).
Until something like that happens, we're doomed to live in this bureaucratic netherworld of pork. The public (I'm guilty too) is too apathetic to realize the country could really use something inspiring like this. Otherwise all the wonderful brainpower out there will continue to funnel into the world of spooky finance transactions... who can blame them!!