New York labor activists stand beside their message sign. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Central to our national self-understanding is the idea that hard work pays off. Americans have always tolerated rather high levels of inequality, as long as most people have had a chance to rise.

Thus was Chris Christie’s opening tribute to his hard-working parents and grandparents the most affecting part of his announcement Tuesday that he is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. The New Jersey governor bestowed praise across gender lines, describing his grandmothers as women “who knew how to work and who knew that hard work would deliver something for their children.”

This section of Christie’s speech got little attention, probably because it was seen as political boilerplate, the kind of thing politicians like to say to connect to the struggles of their fellow citizens. But work, its rewards and its discontents will be central to our nation’s debate going into the 2016 campaign. And President Obama has laid down a marker for testing how seriously politicians take the obligation to make hard work pay.

To much bellyaching from Republicans and business groups, Obama is putting forward new rules — he’ll elaborate on them in a speech in Wisconsin on Thursday — that would make up to 5 million more American workers eligible for overtime pay. He’s doing this by ending a scam through which employers designate even relatively low-paid workers as managers to get around the law, which requires an overtime premium after 40 hours per week.

Under the current rules, as Obama wrote this week in the Huffington Post, salaried workers earning as little as $23,660 a year can be robbed of overtime by being given supervisory or managerial designations. The new regulation would raise the threshold to a more plausible $50,400 a year.

Republican Chris Christie is running for president in 2016. Here are key moments from the New Jersey governor's announcement. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Not surprisingly, some firms immediately announced that they would find ways to evade the rule, warning of shorter hours and fewer jobs. But there are always people in business — not everyone — who react this way to any effort to improve the bargaining position or compensation of employees. Remember all those warnings that the Affordable Care Act would be a “job killer”? Funny how we seem to have added more than 12 million new private-sector jobs since Obamacare was passed in March 2010.

And avoiding overtime is not the only way employers are trying to cut the compensation they offer workers. This week, the Wall Street Journal’s Lauren Weber reported on how businesses are “setting up workers as franchisees or owners of limited liability companies” to “shield” themselves “from tax and labor statutes.” My Post colleague Catherine Rampell has also documented “the shifting of risk off corporate balance sheets and onto the shoulders of individual Americans.”

In discussing rising inequality, we often act as if the trend is a natural development about which we can do nothing. Of course, big economic forces are at work. But government rules and laws — on pay, health care, labor rights and taxes — can improve workers’ standing or they can make the disparities worse. Government has a choice, and there is no purely neutral ground on this question.

And this is why Christie’s lovely tribute to work and family needs to be examined as something more than a sentiment from a greeting card. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, what are typically referred to as “values issues” quickly rose to the forefront of the argument in the Republican presidential primary and next year’s election. But no values issue is more relevant to more Americans (across the boundaries of sexual orientation, gender and race) than whether the hard work that politicians extol pays off in the ways they claim it should.

In a very crowded Republican presidential field, will any candidate find it in his or her interest to break with the party’s orthodoxy on government regulations and labor rights? Will any of them have the temerity to appeal to their party’s many working-class supporters by making the point that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and other Democrats are sure to advance: that reinforcing our “conservative” values about the honor of work often requires what are usually seen as “progressive” measures by government to keep workers from being short-changed?

“One of the things my mother used to say all the time,” Christie declared Tuesday, “was, ‘Christopher, if you work hard enough, you can be anything.’ ” That is precisely the promise that our politicians should be working harder to vindicate.

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