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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

WASHINGTON — When President Obama spoke to the nation Tuesday evening, his way was that of a politically moderate, temperamentally optimistic Democratic governor. He offered a long list of relatively modest but helpful programs that many voters will warm to and Republicans ought to have a hard time opposing.

Obama took a State of the Union address that began as a critique of economic inequality and turned it into case for restoring opportunity. Anyone who saw class warfare here is spending too much time with Rush Limbaugh or Fox News.

Yes, mention of a moderate Democratic governor kindles memories of Bill Clinton. His State of the Union productions consisted of thick catalogues of proposals that the pundits often panned but listeners usually liked. Most voters do not have an ideological view of government. They simply want it to solve some problems. Most Americans also reject a theological faith in the market. They think it’s a fine system until it acts unfairly.

So consider Obama’s latest effort as a set of confidence-building measures. It’s a bid to move the national conversation back to the economic basics: to “opportunity for everybody,” as he said in a follow-up speech on Wednesday at a Costco store in Maryland, and to the idea that “treating workers well is not just the right thing to do, it’s an investment.”

Obama hopes to demonstrate that government can take sensible steps — on wages, job training and income supplements, on savings, pensions and education — and encourage voters to ask Republicans why they would prevent such initiatives from being enacted on a larger scale.

After years of hoping in vain that he could break Washington’s “fever,” the president is responding to a systematic disconnect between the politics of the executive branch and the politics of the legislative branch.

Nationally, the country is moving steadily toward the center-left. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and never received fewer than 252 electoral votes. Generational change will reinforce this trend — conservatives are older as a group than the country as a whole — and the non-white share of the electorate will continue to grow.