The Punisher

Obama came into office promising to bring people together. Now he leads with his fists.

President Obama, in the Oval Office on Oct. 8, 2014
President Obama, in the Oval Office on Oct. 8, 2014.

Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

President Obama will likely soon announce his executive actions revamping his administration’s immigration policies. (Update, Nov. 19, 2014, at 11:20 a.m.: He will make the announcement Thursday.) As many as 5 million undocumented immigrants may be spared deportation. Republicans will react with anger and fury, but the president believes the move might spur Republicans to act on immigration if for no other reason than to overwrite his executive orders. Some of the president’s aides and supporters believe it will lead to a Republican overreaction like the government shutdown of last year. That, in turn, would weaken the GOP, helping Democrats politically and possibly even offering the opportunity for better negotiating terms with Republicans on a variety of issues, when they become anxious to show that they can govern ahead of 2016.

That’s the theory anyway. More important, this president has picked a course for the final stage of his presidency that is a total reversal from its original heading. The promises of Obama 2008 have been dead for a long time. The idea of progress through engagement and a higher-minded approach to the zero-sum politics of the Bush years started dying not long after Obama had his first contact with a determined Republican opposition. By the time the president won re-election, his team was operating under the premise that it was useless to negotiate with Republicans in the House. They concluded GOP leaders couldn’t deliver on the minimum requirements necessary for governing. What the president is doing now on immigration is going one step further. He’s embracing a strategy that posits that progress doesn’t come through cajoling, speechmaking, or refusing to budge, as he did during the debt ceiling debate during the shutdown; instead, you have to punch them in the nose. It’s an approach that is bigger and more confrontational than the minimum wage workarounds or Environmental Protection Agency regulations. He once promised to use his pen to make progress; now he’s wielding it as a weapon. 

This, say the president’s aides, is the only way to proceed when faced with Republicans who refuse to act on immigration reform. The GOP has had years to make progress and has failed to do so. Marco Rubio, the Republican senator who pushed a comprehensive solution, now feels like a remote participant in the conversation and House Speaker John Boehner wouldn’t raise a bipartisan Senate bill in the House for fear of having an election-year crackup over policy details. That dynamic hasn’t changed, so the president is moving forward. 

But what if the president could play hardball and still be lofty and optimistic? Why not give Republicans a handful of months to come up with their immigration plan and then, if they don’t meet the deadline, go ahead with the executive orders? There’s no real rush (or Obama would have ordered the overhaul before the election), and the election has actually changed the dynamic. (If the election didn’t change things, then why did Obama wait until it passed to act?) An argument can be made for delay on purely political grounds. It would look “reasonable” to the op-ed writers and pundits, and it would put pressure on Republicans to act—to actually wrestle with the details of the issue—and that would be messy as different GOP factions fought it out over specific legislative language. Chaos in Republican ranks benefits the president because GOP leaders would have to work to avoid appearing that they were unable to govern on an important issue of the day. That might make them partners on a larger immigration deal that could benefit more people and offer a big legacy item for the president, whereas if the president moves unilaterally they’ll never cooperate with the White House on immigration. Any deal with Obama after the executive orders would be seen by the conservative grass roots as a grand capitulation. 

The president cannot delay, say his aides and allies, because he cannot disappoint his supporters in the Latino community again. There have been too many delays already. Deferring any longer would damage the political unity he’ll hope to draw on in his final two years, and it would hurt Democrats up for re-election in 2016, especially if the president backed down again. That’s why in an interview with Univision, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made his case for the president “going big” by referring to his own political situation. “I think the parents of people I know in Nevada deserve this.”

Plus, the president actually believes in the underlying policy and the value of protecting up to 5 million undocumented immigrants. Democrats believe that delay will only create calls for more delay and more inaction. By forcing the confrontation now, the president takes immediate action to help immigrant families and still puts political pressure on the GOP. Republican leaders now have to temper their reaction by reining in in their members calling for impeachment or another set of budget confrontations, perhaps even a government shutdown, which could backfire as the last one did. At the moment, the risk of a shutdown looks remote, but the challenge is larger than just avoiding a shutdown. Republicans also have to be smart about how they undo the president’s actions, making it an argument about presidential overreach and not an opportunity for them to be painted as inflexible on the issue.

President Obama’s new, muscular position on immigration is the best evidence of his newfound freedom that has come after his party’s big loss at the polls. He is no longer holding his fire to protect Democrats up for re-election in red states. (Some of his aides believe the restraint not only irritated him but led to the weak outcome.) This will likely be the first of few brawls in the president’s final years in office. Apparently, he’s learned that the best way to avoid becoming a lame duck is with your fists.