President Obama isn't through yet. A refusal to be relegated to irrelevance — despite his Democratic Party's drubbing in the 2014 election and the increasing buzz about those who might seek to succeed him two years hence — permeated both the tone and the substance of the president's seventh-year State of the Union address Tuesday.
That's as it should be. One who has twice been entrusted with the nation's highest office ought to be forthright in recommending national policy priorities, initiatives and changes — even if he knows his ideas aren't popular with those in control of Congress. Americans expect as much. Indeed, Obama's standing in opinion polls climbed in recent weeks after he took initiatives on immigration and Cuba that met with fierce GOP opposition.
What's more, one who has had the whole nation as his constituency for six years is uniquely positioned to see hazards and opportunities ahead and summon a response.
We hope that's what Obama did last night as he described an economic recovery that has left too many Americans behind, and as he described his ideas for helping them catch up. America's working people are overdue for a raise. Average incomes have been stagnant since the late 1990s, and wages haven't risen fast enough since the Great Recession to beat inflation. Improving their chances to get ahead should be a top national policy aim.
Several of Obama's policy prescriptions are in keeping with America's faith in education as being key to opportunity and with its belief that work should pay. The case for free community-college tuition echoes the case for free high schools made 125 years ago. Paid sick leave, a richer tax credit for child care, and opportunities for more employees to save for retirement would encourage work and make it financially "workable" for more families.
While Republicans may quarrel about government's rightful role in making such prescriptions, or about whether they are the most effective means to desirable ends, we suspect that their biggest objection will be with Obama's proposal to raise taxes on affluent Americans to pay for them.
Conservative pundits say that calling for tax increases on capital gains, estates and financial institutions will only anger the new GOP majorities and make cooperation between the two branches of government less likely. We hope the new congressional majorities are not that easily offended, and that they will receive Obama's ideas as an invitation to talk about tax reform. The U.S. tax code needs an overhaul to better adapt it to today's economy and the nation's needs.
High among those needs are two big-ticket items — Social Security/Medicare financial stability and transportation/infrastructure renewal. Obama urged the GOP to collaborate on an infrastructure plan, but Social Security/Medicare reform did not earn a mention.
With the federal Highway Trust Fund on track to run out of money by June, Congress will need to act early to replenish it. Obama did not mention that priority on Tuesday, nor did he propose the first federal gas tax since 1993.
Today's low fuel prices may be temporary. But they also represent an opportunity in the short term to collect more at the pump for the sake of the roads on which Americans drive and the transit that could be built to give them better commuting alternatives. A new tax could be structured to "blink off" when oil prices climb again. Or it could be phased out in favor of a more modern alternative — a carbon tax, aimed at reducing climate-altering emissions.
The president mentioned climate change in passing, as he has in several previous State of the Union messages. And with an agreement with China in December, he demonstrated that his commitment to climate-stabilizing action goes beyond lip service. But our sense is that Americans are ready to hear a good deal more from their elected leaders about the threat that climate change poses and the strategies that might mitigate its impact. The comparative silence of Republicans on this topic is worrisome.
Earlier in his presidency, Obama was faulted by some Democrats — often unfairly, we think — for being too accommodating to Republicans. We were glad to hear him voice a continuing interest in seeking bipartisan approaches, particularly in foreign policy. We hope the pragmatism he has exhibited in dealing with Congress in the past six years has not abandoned him.
But a wise president does not negotiate with his adversaries in the State of the Union address. Instead, he makes clear where he stands — and invites the nation to stand with him. With this speech, Obama did just that.