When President Obama delivers the first State of the Union address of his second term next Tuesday, he will be riding a wave of political victories into the coral lined shores of the United States Congress. A tumble into the rough waters of legislative gridlock in the months ahead could cause major damage to the president's second term legislative agenda. There are several lessons from Obama's political wins on the fiscal cliff that both sides should keep in mind when working on immigration legislation and other legislative initiatives.
1. Have a simple, effective pitch: After the knock down drag out fight over raising the debt ceiling in 2011, Obama's team realized they needed a more effective message for future fiscal fights. By characterizing the Republican reluctance to raise the debt limit as akin to refusing to pay for goods already placed on the credit card, Obama had a kitchen table explanation for a complex macroeconomic issue. A similar approach to a comprehensive immigration bill, which due to its size and scope will contain something unpalatable for both parties, will be essential to avoid a death by 1,000 cuts.
2. Seek the support of the opposition's traditional allies: Obama shrewdly courted corporate America, holding meetings with executives whose bottom lines would be adversely affected by another debt limit standoff. These traditional Republican supporters were able to convey the urgency of the issue to the GOP better than anyone else. It's always easier to take advice from a friend than a foe. The president should reach out to business leaders -- who would have much to gain from the certainty that an immigration deal could provide -- again to help sell a plan. Republicans should approach the immigration debate with as an opportunity to reach out to Asians and Hispanics that have trended heavily towards supporting Democrats.
3. Exploit unforced errors: Intransigent Republicans in the House derailed Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B" fiscal proposal, which substantially limited the leverage the party had in discussions over a final solution. That meant that the final deal went even further to the left and needed overwhelming Democratic support in the House to prevent an economic disaster. That served to weaken the strong fiscally responsible economic image Republicans had burnished in previous debates. Republicans need a deal, and Obama should try to work with them. While one side exploiting the other's fumble may again be decisive, a keen focus by both sides on minimizing mistakes and misstatements would allow each to bring their best to the effort of passing immigration reform.
Getting a deal on immigration will be tougher than the fiscal cliff (there is not a credit downgrade or economic meltdown at stake and thus less incentive to deal), but it is still possible if both President Obama and the Republicans learn from past successes, do not repeat missteps and seek to truly make this a win-win effort.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).