It might be true that speeches rarely amount to much, and the heightened absurdity of the State of the Union address -- with its weird formality and members of Congress bobbing up and down like synchronized swimmers -- usually makes it seem less consequential than most. But when it comes to domestic policy, speeches are one of only a few instruments of presidential power. They're worth doing well.
Last night's was done well. President Barack Obama delivered a shrewd and effective address. He gave Democrats some good applause lines, with his lively defense of the health-care reform, his call for extended unemployment benefits and his promise of executive action on the minimum wage for federal contractors. But he didn't come looking for a fight. His tone was relaxed and emollient. Inequality was mentioned but not to the fore; he stressed opportunity instead. That was wise.
As I've argued before, themes that unite the country are likely to advance Democratic goals more effectively than themes that divide. This isn't about pursuing harmony for its own sake. There's no chance of that. It's about framing the Democratic agenda in a way that commands the broadest possible support, hence making it politically harder for the Republicans to oppose.
Notably, Obama applied this logic even to many of the measures slated for executive action. Speculation ahead of the speech mostly got this wrong. He didn't say, Congress insists on blocking these progressive initiatives, so I'll push them through unilaterally. For the most part, he said, Here are some things that everybody can support, and I intend to get on with them. For example: "I'll cut red tape to get those factories built … I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects." You might wonder why he wasn't doing that already, but never mind. House Speaker John Boehner applauded, as well he might: These are Republican talking points.
So far as new legislation is concerned, Obama's main proposals were nicely calculated to undermine Republican resistance. A comprehensive immigration reform that gives legal status to many illegal immigrants, but stops short of providing a fast track to citizenship, may be emerging. It would be a sensible compromise and a huge step forward. It's an idea many Republicans can accept.
Obama said he wants to widen eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, a wage subsidy for low-paid workers. Great idea, and maybe even a workable one. Republicans are open to it; Marco Rubio has advocated it. Remember that the EITC started out as a conservative idea. In its best and fullest form, it could become a negative income tax, or "universal income" scheme. Even though Milton Friedman came up with the idea, progressives should welcome every step in that direction.
Obama's proposals for a new guaranteed retirement-saving instrument to be called a MyRA and for automatic enrollment in Individual Retirement Accounts could also appeal to conservatives, depending on the details. Schemes for automatic enrollment in IRAs have been proposed by centrists and conservatives, as well as previously by the Obama administration. Certainly, the need is real. For many workers, Social Security won't provide a comfortable retirement, and not all employers offer a 401(k) plan.
Admittedly, Republicans are shameless about opposing policies they once favored as soon as they're taken up by Democrats. Obama's health-care reform mostly followed a conservative blueprint; you'd never guess this from the way conservatives now denounce it. The same fate may well await immigration reform, EITC expansion, MyRAs and automatic IRAs -- but that doesn't mean Obama is wrong to press them. In the best case, intelligent policies might actually be enacted. In the worst case, from the Democrats' point of view, Republicans will discredit themselves by running away from their own good ideas.
(Clive Crook is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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