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.

If only the president had fought, really fought, for this kind of reform his first term, and if only he'll get serious about it in his second, maybe all of us can finally put this nigh-eternal issue behind us. And get on with making the kind of history a nation of immigrants should.

The president also struck a reasonable note on gun control/gun rights, saluting the Second Amendment while recognizing that it's not a license for more Newtowns and Columbines and, here in Arkansas, Jonesboros.

Yes, let's finally have meaningful background checks at gun shows, instead of inviting felons, nutcases and dubious characters in general to start assembling arsenals all their own. Come, let us reason together.

Then maybe we'll find other such obvious reforms all law-abiding citizens can agree on. Even if it's clear we're just nibbling around the issue instead of recognizing that it requires what Rudy Giuliani did to clean up New York: vigorous law enforcement on the local level that ignores no breach of the peace, however minor the infraction. The Broken Windows approach to police work, it's called.

Then there was the bad. Here's a brief summation and (very) free translation of the president's remarks in an attempt to translate his instant clichés into plain English:

"I want you to know that I'm all for the middle class and for expanding it when I'm not taxing it to death, and that goes for small business, too, when I'm not loading it down with taxes and penalties and forms to fill out. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (none dare call it Obamacare in my administration), health-insurance premiums are increasing dramatically, and our entire approach to better medicine is being carefully wrapped in red tape, mountains of it. What's more, I promise there'll be more of it once we find out all that's in Obama -- I mean the Affordable Care Act.

"I want to assure you, as I go down the list of challenges facing this great nation, that there's not a one that more government spending won't fix. Why, the economy is already improving noticeably thanks to my ministrations. Pay no mind to those unemployment figures. I'm certainly not going to mention them tonight, just make a passing remark about the need for more jobs. I'm sure the next economic stimulus I get passed will be as effective as the first in getting this vibrant, improving economy started again.

"Why, under my administration, we're producing more oil and natural gas than we have for years. For decades. No need to mention a forgotten historical figure like George P. Mitchell, a wildcatter-engineer-entrepreneur out on the Barnett Shale who pretty much invented fracking, which now has made all the difference in our and the world's energy picture. The man persisted in his crazy idea for years, being just the kind of wicked capitalist we've got to tax and discourage more.

"I want to assure all of you that I'm as completely committed to Comprehensive Tax Reform as I was during my first four years in office. Which may be why it hasn't gotten anywhere, but never you mind all that. We've just got to stop creating the kind of manufactured crises every few months that I invented with a little help from my friends in Congress. As for the arbitrary, indiscriminate sequestration of government spending now hanging over our heads, that's the worst idea I've heard since I introduced it, confident nobody would be damfool enough to call my bluff."

"Let the word go out from this time and place: I stand with our brave troops and diplomats around the world, except maybe at Benghazi. And we will do everything in our power to support the rising tide of freedom throughout the Arab world, except maybe in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia.

"I don't know why we can't make it easier to vote in this country. Let's follow the example of my hometown, Chicago, that paragon of clean elections. Why, in Mayor Daley the First's time, or Boss Hague's in Jersey City, even the dead were voting. And nobody ever asked them for any steenkin' ID...."

Ibid., loc. cit., passim, etc., ad infinitum . . . till an hour seemed an eternity.

Finally, there was the downright eloquent in the president's speech. The old Barack Obama, the one who first came to national attention by reminding us that there are no red states or blue states but the United States of America, came back in his grand peroration.

What a contrast this year's State of the Union made with the one in which he chewed out the justices of the Supreme Court who dared show up to hear him. And with his second inaugural just a couple of weeks ago, with all its talk about The People -- as if we were all part of one great, amorphous blob spreading slowly across the continent and somehow anonymously inventing things and building great enterprises.

Instead the president spoke of The Citizen, a title far more majestic than King or Czar or certainly People's Republic. Or president, for that matter. For as Harry Truman commented on leaving the White House, he was now being promoted to the highest rank in the republic, Private Citizen. For the citizen is the ultimate depository of sovereignty in a true republic, where he is lord of himself, for good or ill. That's the essence (and burden) of freedom: personal responsibility.

Here's hoping this president will remember his paean to the citizen before the collectivist bug gets to him again. It can hold on forever, like a bad case of the flu, and be even more debilitating for a society.


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.