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With little hope for his agenda, Obama is at least triggering a useful debate

President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was a drumbeat of ideas he says will reinvigorate the nation’s middle class. The proposals are almost certainly going nowhere, but they do serve to begin a debate with Republicans over who needs help and the best way to accomplish it.

The American Dream is the notion that through hard work, Americans can build better lives and pass those benefits along to their children. Obama touched on what most people living what is now the American Struggle already know. It’s hard out there just to stay afloat, while getting ahead sometimes seems all but impossible. It is important to our democracy to rekindle that dream.

The president laid out his plans for leveling the playing field for countless Americans, to a frosty reception by Republicans in the House chamber. The GOP not only opposes most of those changes, it is still vowing to continue the futile fights against Obamacare and immigration reform.

With a stern-faced House Speaker John Boehner seated behind him, the president opened up his basket of proposals. Some of Obama’s ideas are worthy of further examination, especially ones relating to improving the lives of the middle class. There are ways to directly help the middle class that don’t compromise conservative principles. If Republicans don’t find a way to promote them, they run the risk of being painted as the party of the wealthy leading into the 2016 presidential election.

Two of Obama’s idea would directly encourage work. One would provide a $500 tax credit for some families where both spouses work. Another would expand the child care tax credit. Child care is expensive and that cost is a barrier to some workers entering or returning to the job market.

The president also wants to increase paid family medical leave. Republicans and their business constituency have already balked at that plan. Still, it will be good for each side to defend its stance.

Obama’s far-reaching proposal for free community college is based on the sound conclusion that the nation benefits from a better-educated public. However, for low-income families, community college is already mostly paid for by grants and other tuition assistance. Community college tuition is low enough for most of the middle class to attend without incurring this proposal’s $60 billion tab.

Obama could – and should – gain traction on his proposal for $300 billion in infrastructure spending, and possibly his idea for public-private partnerships on infrastructure improvements. The spending would start the job of rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges and water systems, and provide a boost to the economy.

To pay for his agenda, Obama would raise some taxes on the wealthiest Americans, the ones who have benefited the most during the recovery from the Great Recession. However fair that may sound, Republicans have derided what they call a Robin Hood approach to government.

Little of what we heard Tuesday night is likely to make it into law, but the speech was more about setting the agenda for the presidential election than it was about legislation.

Obama has at least started a compelling conversation. Now Republicans have to figure out how to join in.