Two themes dominated the advance speculation about President Obama's State of the Union address: that he would hammer away at income inequality and joblessness, and that, despairing of cooperation with congressional Republicans, he would defiantly trumpet what he could accomplish unilaterally.
Fortunately, the forecasts were only half right. Obama indeed emphasized the importance of strengthening and enlarging the middle class, which he said had been battered not only by a concentration of wealth at the top but by "massive shifts in technology and global competition."
But while he did announce some unilateral actions, including a directive to create a new vehicle for retirement savings, Obama asked Republicans who control the House to "make progress together."
Engaging the opposition isn't only politic; it's indispensable. Take an issue that loomed large in Obama's speech: the need for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10, restoring its purchasing power to late-1960s levels. Economists argue ad nauseam about whether raising the minimum wage depresses hiring. But surely minimum-wage workers are entitled at the very least to increases that cover inflation.
Obama announced that he would issue an executive order to mandate a higher wage for employees of businesses that receive government contracts. But that unilateral action would protect only a few hundred thousand workers, compared with the millions who would benefit from a legislated increase. Likewise, congressional action would be needed to restore expired unemployment benefits to 1.6 million Americans.
So too with immigration reform. Although the president has been able on his own to defer the deportation of the so-called dreamers, who were brought to this country when they were young, legal relief for their parents will require congressional action. Like the president, we believe reform must include a path to citizenship of the sort in the bill passed by the Senate. But with key Republicans moving to acceptance of the idea of legalization, Obama rightly adopted a conciliatory tone, acknowledging that "members of both parties in the House" want to fix a broken immigration system.
Despite these conciliatory gestures, Obama was resolute where he had to be. He warned Republicans that it would be futile to schedule "another 40-something votes" to repeal the Affordable Care Act, "a law that's already helping millions of Americans." And he offered a crisp defense of negotiations with Iran over that country's nuclear program, promising that "if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it."