SALT LAKE CITY — Stephen Hawking has said that “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” Tuesday will be President Barack Obama’s seventh State of the Union speech to Congress, but it will be his first to a Congress controlled in both chambers by Republicans. What will he say? Savvy chief executives learn to adapt to changing circumstances and the ebb and flow of their own power. President Obama is undeniably in a weaker position than he was two months ago when Democrats still controlled the Senate. The question is whether or not he will change his rhetoric and his policies.
In many ways, Obama is in a spot similar to President Bill Clinton in 1995, after Republicans regained control of both the Senate and — for the first time in 40 years — the House of Representatives. Though I disagreed with many of Clinton’s policies, Obama could learn a great deal from his ability to work with the other party.
Clinton clearly recognized his weaker political position and used his 1995 State of the Union to begin negotiating. He began the speech by acknowledging that the American people wanted a change from his previous two years and then agreed to the Republican theme of making the government “smaller, less costly and smarter; leaner, not meaner.” He also suggested “taking power away from federal bureaucracies and giving it back to communities and individuals” — very much a conservative idea. Clinton went on to agree to significant tax cuts in 1995 and to enact successful welfare reform in 1996. On these points at least, Clinton figured out how to find common ground and agree to some very conservative policies that the American people wanted.
Though I disagreed with many of Clinton's policies, Obama could learn a great deal from his ability to work with the other party.
Obama now has the same chance to listen to the American people and work with Republicans, who have even made it easy for him by teeing up a bill that has deep support among the American people and bipartisan support in Congress. The first bill to pass the House in the new Congress last week was approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project which the president’s own State Department estimated would create 42,000 jobs and have minimal impact on the environment. The Senate is now debating the bill and will almost certainly pass it with the support of every Republican and numerous Democrats. A CNN poll last week found that 57 percent of Americans support the project. There is absolutely no reason to delay the project any longer. If the president listens to the American people, he will sign the bill.
There are other initiatives ripe for passage with broad bipartisan support, including tax reform. Sixty-nine percent of Americans want the president to work with Congress on tax reform. Utah’s own Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch will take the lead in the Senate, and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan will head the effort in the House as the new chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Both have promised a plan that will reduce the complexity of the tax code, as well as lower rates for individuals and businesses.
And then there’s Obamacare. While it’s uncertain if the Republicans will be able to repeal the entire mess with Obama in the White House, Congress has already voted to repeal some of the worst pieces of Obamacare and will continue preparing for the possibility that the Supreme Court strikes down the law's subsidies this spring. Should that happen, Obamacare will become prohibitively expensive for the majority of Americans, and the president will be forced to negotiate with Republicans. I hope the president recognizes that many of the Democrats who lost their elections last November lost for supporting Obamacare. Even if he won’t listen to Republicans, maybe he will come to the table for the sake of his own party.
Listen closely to what Obama says Tuesday evening. Not only will the president lay out his legislative agenda, he will use this time to set the political tone for the coming year. I hope he’ll speak of some of the areas where there’s common ground. Whether the president commits to working with Congress rather than around it for his last two years will say a lot about his legacy. Republicans have come to the negotiating table in good faith. Will he?
Chris Stewart is the congressman from Utah's Second Congressional District. He is a New York Times best-selling and national award-winning author, world-record-setting Air Force pilot, and the former owner/CEO of a small business.