Improving the prospects of the beleaguered middle class is a profound challenge for the nation newly emerged from the economic doldrums, making it a fitting focus for President Barack Obama's sixth State of the Union address.
The imperative for Obama until now was crisis management of the economic collapse, and then damage control to seed economic recovery and limit the pain of the worst financial system meltdown since the Great Depression.
With unemployment down, job creation up, economic growth strong, the stock market bullish, consumer confidence surging and foreclosures, gasoline prices and federal budget deficits plummeting, it's clear "the shadow of the crisis has passed," as Obama said. But despite the hard-won good news, wages for middle class taxpayers and those aspiring to join them remain essentially stagnant -- as they've been for 30 years -- giving workers ample reason to worry that the American dream is dying.
The challenge is to ensure that everybody shares in the benefits of the resurgent economy, while positioning the nation for continued growth in a competitive global economy roiled by things like the hit to oil producers and sluggish growth in key markets in Europe and Asia.
As Obama noted, "Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?"
Congress ought to begin grappling with these issues right away. But most of Obama's agenda -- including tax breaks for the middle class, tax hikes for top earners, tuition-free community college, expanded family and sick leave, a higher minimum wage and new spending for schools and infrastructure -- will go nowhere in the Republican-led Congress.
The parties don't see eye to eye on much economic policy, and those philosophical differences have been exacerbated by hot partisan conflict over Obama's orders to extend legal status to 5 million immigrants here illegally, the Affordable Care Act, expansion of relations with Cuba and the president's way of waging the war on terrorists.
But by laying out elements of a Democratic economic agenda, Obama is pushing Republicans to put their ideas to help the middle class on the table, too, and challenging them to come up with specifics beyond cutting taxes and regulations, and shrinking government. He challenged Congress to make the debates over rival proposals "worthy of this body and worthy of this country."
By honing in on the middle class, the national address should mark the official beginning of a critical debate on income and wealth inequality.