Obama’s Usefully Bland Speech

It’s probably wise not to get too worked up about any State of the Union speech, and this year’s was especially inoffensive. Or, if you prefer, refreshingly so.

President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union address encompassed the typical presidential wish list, including such hardy policy perennials as corporate tax reform and a call for members of Congress to commit themselves to bipartisanship, hard work, “rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here,” and so on. What was most striking about the speech, however, may have been its tone: smooth, pleasant, non-confrontational. It’s almost as if Obama was enjoying himself.

Early on, he gave props to House Speaker John Boehner, though the compliment was personal, not political. Obama’s call for a new immigration system was brief -- 121 words of almost 6,800 -- and seemed designed mostly not to upset House Republicans as they go about the delicate task of trying to attract Democratic support for a reform bill while pretending otherwise. Even Obama’s critique of Republican opposition to his health-care law was more bemused than angry.

So the standard outraged partisan reaction to the speech, delivered as usual before the speech, seemed especially lame this year. (The official Republican response, by contrast, delivered after the speech by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, was notable for its lack of rancor.) The most serious objection -- that the president’s expanded use of executive power sets a dangerous precedent -- would be worth consideration if Obama were usurping congressional powers.

But much of what he’s doing is almost laughably inconsequential: Raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, which would benefit perhaps a few hundred thousand workers? Asking businesses to hire more of the long-term unemployed? Reviewing federal job-training programs? Constitutional crises, these are not.

True, Obama’s move to set new environmental regulations is potentially consequential, and the White House has pledged to make 2014 a year of executive action. Yet Congress has similarly promised more attentive oversight, and the Supreme Court is currently considering a case about the president’s right to make appointments during congressional recesses. It’s hard to argue that the system of checks and balances isn’t working.

At any rate, it’s not as if Obama is ignoring Congress. In his speech last night he acknowledged that much of his agenda depends on the legislative branch: Among the bills he would like to sign into law are ones funding transportation projects, giving him authority to pursue trade deals, reforming the patent system, protecting voting rights, extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage. All are worthy. Half a handful are likely to reach his desk.

So Obama was shrewd in highlighting ideas that House Republicans may actually support, or at least find difficult to oppose. Expanding the earned-income tax credit is one such proposal, and good policy besides. Creating new ways for workers to save through automatic IRAs is another intriguing idea that could appeal to Republicans.

It’s always dangerous, of course, to take State of the Union proposals too seriously. And Obama and the current Congress do not exactly have a productive history. If there is ever to be any cooperation, however, last night’s tone can only help.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.