Heading into last week's State of the Union address, many folks were thinking the president would map out an agenda geared toward damage control. Commentators of all political persuasions agree that 2013 was a rough year for Barack Obama, and lots of them held that a "lay-low" strategy might be the best path for our commander in chief to pursue.
Instead, what we got was a pitch to make 2014 the "year of action." Reviews of this have been mixed. I've heard some of my left-of-center friends say that none of Obama's suggestions were all that bold. But to those on the right, his advocacy of sweeping immigration reform and federally mandated wage increases, combined with recent threats to bypass Congressional consent, sure sounded pretty hawkish.
As soon as the president left the podium, the peanut gallery -- I mean punditry -- went abuzz. To the analysts, the president's speech was either too soft, too rabid, too modest or too reckless. And while I wasn't sure all those people watched the same address, one thing is certain: Most have their heels dug in, ready for a fight.
Maybe it's worth noting here that we have officially entered the Year of the Horse, according to the Chinese zodiac. From my extensive research of that subject -- totaling three Google searches -- I learned 2014 will be marked by conflict and that people will be less likely to negotiate or seek compromise. Figures.
My gut says that, considering this is an election year, Democrats will initially take action on policies that can sway public opinion quickest. Read: make Republicans look like meanies. If Republicans do anything other than give a thumbs up to comprehensive immigration reform and sign off on minimum wage increases, their opponents will cast them as racist elitists.
Rather than letting Democrats set policy and campaign conversations, which would likely push the GOP into "no" mode again, Republicans need to move quickly to frame policy discussions themselves. Instead of being the Party of No, the GOP should work to establish an identity as the Let's Fix It Party.
Democrat lawmakers are being plagued by the downstream negative effects of what they and their supporters thought were quality legislative policies--the easiest to single out being the Affordable Care Act. Some policy consequences have been expected, while others caught most Americans, including legislators, off guard.
So, instead of saying "no" to whatever new legislation Democrats throw on the table, the GOP should adopt a "fix it" mindset to correct faulty policy enacted over the past few years. Republicans have the chance to rebrand themselves as our nation's fixers.
Here are three suggestions on where to start:
Obamacare: Let's be real. As painful as it may be to admit, Obamacare is likely here for the long haul. And all of those repealing efforts are starting to make House Republicans look a little loony. More repeal votes won't accomplish much, so let's instead find a couple of amendable parts of the law that would quickly benefit Americans. Republicans could, in effect, say to Congressional Democrats, "Here guys, let us show you how to make your law a little less terrible and actually help more people."
Immigration reform: While Rep. Paul Ryan is already walking back GOP commitments to reform measures, it would be smart to keep working to move the needle forward on this front. This broken system needs improvement -- even if initial moves are modest -- and it would be a major public relations score for the party.
Keystone and jobs: If Republicans help Democrats fix parts of Obamacare and promote pieces of mutually agreeable immigration reform, the GOP would then have the leverage to push a third agenda item, one that will create thousands of jobs: the Keystone pipeline.
During the "year of action," Republicans can offer ways to fix Obamacare, fix our immigration mess and give the president's party some help in fixing long-term unemployment. And I think it might feel good to say something other than "no" for a change.
David Allen Martin, a civic engagement advocate and history teacher, writes from Chattanooga.