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Megan McArdle: Obama, Republicans and unreachable goals

It’s hard to sum up an hourlong speech in a pithy sentence, but let me try anyway: President Obama’s message Tuesday night was, “We need to stop getting caught up in partisan battles and compromise on sensible policies to help the middle class, and by ‘we’ I mean Republicans.”

State of the Union speeches are a grab bag of theoretical policies that score well with focus groups and will mostly never happen. But if it was not an immortal work of rhetorical genius, Obama’s speech was politically deft. He succeeded in making himself out as the pragmatic hero of the middle class, against the destructive forces of ideology.

It was light, however, on policy details. He offered name checks of cherished Democratic chestnuts – universal child care, paid sick and maternity leave, government guarantees of equal pay for women, and a higher minimum wage. He restated his support for free community college and investments in infrastructure. He offered a new initiative to do “precision medicine” and offered support for humanity expanding into the solar system, not to visit but to stay. He wants more money to fight Ebola.

But the specifics were rather light, particularly on his extensive array of tax proposals, which will raise a significant amount of money with some rather sweeping changes to the way we tax educational savings, capital gains and estates. There’s a reason for that. Americans like to hear that rich people are going to be forced to pay their “fair share.” They would probably be considerably less excited to hear that Obama wants to tax the earnings on educational savings accounts, or that any assets they inherit from their parents would be subject to a capital gains tax.

Of course, these are never-never proposals; the new Republican Congress is not going to open its career by taxing America’s college savings. But in a way, that makes it even stranger; since you can’t get it done anyway, why bring it up?

The answer is that this gives him an imaginary revenue source he can attach to his equally imaginary plans to subsidize community college and child care. The real benefit of these proposals is that they’re complicated and hard to explain. Republicans have been understandably reluctant to attack these policies directly, and for good reason.

Obama closed his speech by suggesting that “surely we can all agree” with his goals. This was, of course, completely false – he articulated the lofty goals behind a cluster of actual policy disputes that Americans very much do not agree upon. But who wants to be the guy jabbering about “529 accounts” and “stepped-up basis on estate assets” while the president is talking about rebuilding the middle class?

The Republican response was also light on actual policy proposals. Joni Ernst, the Iowa pig farmer turned legislator, wasn’t quite as wooden as most of her predecessors. But she didn’t articulate a substantial, affirmative agenda for her party. Though to be fair, maybe that’s too much to expect from a 10-minute speech.

The slightly less pithy summary of Obama’s speech is that he’s back in his element: campaigning as the Bipartisan Voice of Reasonable America rather than trying to govern. Very little is going to happen during the next two years, so he has the luxury of staking out a visionary position above all the ideology, the divisiveness, the grubby business of designing real laws and making real deals.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.