4 Obama State of the Union Ideas That Do Have a Chance in Hell

Republicans pretty much hated the president’s State of the Union address. But there were a few proposals— from tax reform to cybersecurity—that could bring the two sides together.

01.21.15 4:30 AM ET

The reaction from Republicans in Congress to President Obama’s State of the Union address was, as expected, broadly negative. But there are some issues the president identified that Republicans have said they could work with him on: authorizing military force in Iraq and Syria; new cybersecurity legislation; tax reform; and approving new free-trade agreements.

The president also ruled out a few areas of negotiation: He said that attempts to roll back Obamacare, or reduce regulations on Wall Street or new sanctions against Iran would earn his veto.

Republicans were not open to most of his proposals.

Hours before the president even delivered the address, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) dismissed it as a speech full of things his colleagues in the House and Senate simply wouldn’t agree to. 

“I think the president ought to give two State of the Union addresses,” the senator said in a pre-speech statement. “We’ve pretty well heard the first one. The one with things Congress wouldn’t ever do. We need to hear the one with proposals that Congress might actually do, working with the president.”

Alexander did cite two issues that he said he hoped Republicans could work with the president on: preventing cyberattacks and expanding free trade. Funnily enough, the president mentioned both items in his address Tuesday evening. 

While not presidency-defining, earth-shattering proposals, it’s a start for two parties that have spent the last few years in total gridlock. Here are four items Republicans have said they’re ready to work with Obama on:

1. Authorizing Military Force in Iraq and Syria

Republicans and Democrats have been clamoring for the president to propose wording for an authorization of military force in Iraq and Syria since shortly after the United States first began striking ISIS targets last summer. Although members of Congress on both sides of the aisle sought to formalize and restrict the president’s authority to use American military might abroad and several proposals were brought forward, Congress was unable to agree on legislation by the end of 2014. 

In the new Congress, key Republicans have called on the president to propose legislation as a framework for negotiations, arguing that previous bills were created in that way. The president agreed to their request Tuesday evening, telling assembled lawmakers: “I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against [ISIS].”

The devil is in the details: Should Congress authorize force targeted just at ISIS or broaden it to include other terrorist groups? Where would military force be limited to? Would combat troops on the ground be allowed? And how long would the campaign be authorized for? The president has taken the first step.

2. Cybersecurity Legislation

The Sony cyberattacks, which the Obama administration blamed on North Korea, focused American attention on the need to improve the nation’s cybersecurity measures. 

“No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids,” Obama said in his State of the Union address. 

But improving cybersecurity will be a heavy lift. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters earlier this month that while members had really hoped for cybersecurity reform, little progress has been made on a bill. 

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“[I’ve had] more meetings on cyber than any other issue in my time in the Senate, and gotten the least amount of result,” McCain said.

“Previous attempts by Republicans to pass such a bill ended in failure—in part due to the president’s unwillingness to sign legislation proposed by the House GOP,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes on Tuesday evening.

3. Trade Promotion

Many Republicans favor more open world markets, and the president gave a nod to free-trade agreements Tuesday evening. “I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair,” Obama said during his address. 

Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said trade is where “we can find common ground with the president on. But we need the president to engage… we need him to make it a priority on the State of the Union.” Ryan told reporters at the congressional Republican retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, that he believes Obama is ready to negotiate with Congress and make the case to the public that free-trade agreements are a net positive for Americans.

“I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense,” Obama said Tuesday evening. “But 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders, and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities.”

4. Tax Reform

The president said 2015 is a year with an “opportunity” to change the federal tax code, which is filled “with giveaways the superrich don’t need [while] denying a break to middle-class families who do.” 

Republicans have been quick to reject the idea of raising taxes on anyone, including the rich, as a means to fund other initiatives. Still, they have held out some hope of getting tax reform done this year—if the president’s message of tax hikes for the wealthy is merely a starting point for negotiations rather than his end goal. 

“There’s great interest, among our members, on tax reform,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said last week at the Republican congressional retreat. “We think it could unleash a tremendous among of economic growth and economic activity… It [depends] on whether the White House wants to engage in it, really lean into it, really put their shoulder into it.”