Editorial Board

Obama’s Boldly Modest State of the Union

The most moving part of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was also its least ambitious.

Gesturing to the girl’s parents in the first lady’s box, Obama recounted the story of Hadiya Pendleton, the high-school majorette who performed at his inauguration last month. She was shot and killed two weeks ago. He acknowledged former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, also in attendance, who was critically wounded by a gunman two years ago. He recognized the victims of the mass shooting of schoolchildren last December in Newtown, Connecticut, one of whose teachers also sat with Michelle Obama.

What all these people deserve, the president said, is not necessarily safer gun laws. What they deserve is -- a vote on safer gun laws. “If you want to vote no,” he told members of Congress, “that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote.”

It was an oddly modest request, made more so because Obama has been so bold in demanding common-sense gun laws, such as stricter background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines. Then again, the State of the Union is an odd event. It’s best not to try to make too much sense of it. Anyone care to explain to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Ted Nugent how they ended up on the same guest list?

With that caveat -- as well as the knowledge that State of the Union proposals generally, and Obama’s in particular, don’t always come to fruition -- this year’s version was notable for its seeming reasonableness. Emphasis on “seeming.”

By some measures, this was an ambitious speech, calling for an increase in the minimum wage; universal preschool; legislation to slow down climate change; immigration reform; voting reform; negotiations for a free-trade agreement with Europe; and winning seasons for all hometown teams. (OK, we made that last one up. But surely the president supports it.)

At the same time, however, Obama had a way of pulling back, of making his ambitions seem less grand. This is easy enough to do when citing bipartisan commissions (we counted at least three references) and offering minor proposals (redesigning high schools “to better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy”). It’s harder to do when making the case for the big issues.

For example, the president made the standard call for “comprehensive immigration reform.” As necessary as that may be, it remains unlikely. So Obama was also careful to call for “fixing the legal immigration system.” Few Republicans would argue with that (though a few Democrats might). The danger is that in offering it, the president could cede too much in the fight for broader reform.

To deal with the budget deficit, Obama called for “tax reform and entitlement reform,” which sounds better than “tax increases and entitlement cuts,” and proposed eliminating some loopholes and making “modest reforms” to Medicare. But he didn’t offer many details, and the discussion was more about getting the government’s budget in order than its proper role in society. If you’re trying to be agreeable, then specifics can only cause trouble, as they tend to foster disagreement.

Or take increasing the minimum wage and making preschool available “to every child in America”: Both would unquestionably help in the fight against income and wealth inequality. But Obama didn’t articulate any such rationale. He just cited statistics and Republicans in support of his proposals.

Granted, these are tactical concerns, and the purpose of the State of the Union address -- isn’t it? -- is to make policy arguments. It’s not the ideal forum for declamations on the rights of citizens and the role of government. That’s what inaugural addresses are for, and Obama’s second was notable for its unapologetic defense of the classical liberal vision.

Obama seemed at pains in the State of the Union to be prosaic, sensible, unthreatening. Did it work? If Senator Marco Rubio’s rote response to the State of the Union is any indication, Obama’s tone last night didn’t win him much of a hearing with Republicans.

Which brings us back to our original point: Calling for a vote on new gun-safety laws is either politically astute (who could be against a simple vote?) or politically pointless (why ask for only a simple vote?). Maybe both. In making his request so modest, Obama risks making his opponents suspicious and his supporters nervous. Or maybe he’s just, you know, trying to be reasonable.