Paul Greenberg

First, the good parts. They stood out. Indeed, the president's general tone Tuesday night, despite the reflexive class warfare here and there, was much less fast and furious than his re-inaugural address -- as if now he wanted to work with the opposition rather than just excoriate it.

"We can do this," Mr. Obama assured the country. Just what we can do -- will it be for good or ill? -- may not always be clear, but at least Tuesday night he seemed interested in bringing us together instead of driving us further apart.

The partisan boilerplate that issued forth from the usual Republican sources after this year's State of the Union was all the less convincing after the president's resort to reasonableness, at least in tone and gesture -- which count for a lot.

Indeed, style can be all when it comes to getting things done, as Ronald Reagan well knew when cajoling even an old irascible like Tip O'Neill, the long-time leader of the opposition in the Gipper's day. Mr. Reagan's program may have been to the right of right, but he was always nicer than nice, personally likeable and even politically flexible after he'd done his rhetorical worst, or rather best. After all, why make enemies he didn't already have -- if he could further his principles, anyway? And he certainly did that.

This president struck just the right tone when it came to finally fixing this country's long-broken immigration system. Omitting the inevitable self-promotion ("we can build on the progress my administration's already made," and such), what the president said made good sense:

"Real reform means strong border security. ... Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship, a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally. And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy."

If only this president had included poets and seers and freedom-fighters, and the great dancers and musicians of our time, as meriting visas, too -- the Solzhenitsyns and Sharanskys, the Rostropoviches and Baryshnikovs. But who could argue with his general idea? Except of course the usual soreheads who would rather fight this problem than ever solve it. But there seem to be fewer and fewer of those these days, or at least they no longer seem to have as much support.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.