Politics

Has Obama Trapped Himself?

The ‘Down Payment’ Ploy, Coming Right Up: Immigration “comprehensivists” claim Obama’s promised executive actions to protect illegal immigrants constitute a kind of doomsday weapon directed at the Republican party. If Obama acts boldly to offer de facto legalization to, say, “up to half of the undocumented population” of 11 million illegals living here, it will cement an unshakeable bond between Latino voters and their political champion — or so the argument goes. The more Republicans complain and stamp their feet the more they’ll “lastingly” alienate this growing ethnic bloc, predicts Ron Brownstein. **

But hasn’t Obama more obviously put himself in a bind?  Remember that a) the political battlegrounds in 2014, with one or two exceptions (Colorado) are not places with a heavy Latino vote, but rather places (Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina) with a heavy presence of voters (e.g. whites, but maybe also blacks) who might resent targeted pandering to “ascendant” groups they can never join, and b) sweeping executive action would probably — though not definitely*** — kill any chance of getting the Republican House to go along with “comprehensive” legalization legislation next year, if not sooner. (Question for Brownstein: Why is it  such a triumph for Obama if he takes an action that destroys hope of attaining his #1 legislative goal during the remainder of his presidency? I don’t see it.)  Also c) the recent surge of undocumented migrants for Central America makes it especially tricky for Obama to dramatically expand earlier executive actions that arguably encouraged the migrants to come (in the hopes that they, too, would be eventual beneficiaries of executive “discretion”).

So why would Obama want to go bold in his promised decree? I don’t think he would, normally — or rather there would be a powerful and victorious faction in the White House counseling him not to, certainly not before the midterm election. The problem is that Obama’s I’m-pissed-off theatrics“today, I’m beginning a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress”– and the euphoric reactions of Latino activists have raised expectations to such a high level that if Obama now goes “small” he might actually offend, disappoint and discourage some Latino voters in the midterms instead of mobilizing them.

That’s the trap. He can’t go big. He can’t go small. What’s a pol to do?  The answer seems obvious when you think about it: Issue some kind of decree, or set of decrees, before the election that are small enough not to attract that much attention or give Republicans a heart attack. Tell disappointed Latino activists this is just another “down payment” on the grand executive amnesty waiting down the road if they vote Democratic. Punt the question of “sweeping” executive action until later, when , with the election safely behind you,  you can punt it again with fewer consequences — if, for example, a legislative fix (that wouldn’t be subject to constitutional challenge and wouldn’t leave half the undocumented population un-amnestied) seems within reach. ****

That is what I’d bet Obama will do.

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** —  I’m an admirer of Brownstein, but at this point you have to wonder if he’s so heavily invested in “comprehensive” reform and his grand corporate- and foundation-friendly branded “Next America” project  –which seems to be partly a burial ground for pro-amnesty journalism (Sample: ” Do You Like Peaches? Then This South Carolina Farmer Suggests You Like Immigration Reform, Too”) — that you have to wonder if he hasn’t placed insurmountable institutional barriers in the way of even possibly changing his mind, or even concluding, say, that the latest biased Pew poll shows support for his kind of reform falling. There are fewer barriers to a politician changing his mind.

*** — Much of the GOP outrage, after all, will be exaggerated for show, if not entirely fake. John Boehner, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Haley Barbour are not going to stop pushing for some kind of broad amnesty/guestworker/increased immigration law. Salmon swim upstream. It won’t even take them long to come up with an argument that Obama’s unconscionable unilateralism somehow makes passing the legislation he and they want more necessary than ever.

**** — Cautionary note for hopeful Latino activists: A legislative compromise always seems within reach. There is vast DC lobbying/media complex that depends for its survival on “comprehensive” reform always seeming within reach — to keep the corporate clients paying the bills, to keep the grantmakers granting, to keep reporters on their beats writing easy denunciations of DC dysfunction, to keep the whole capital consensus from unnecessary introspection (in which Republicans might have to rethink parts of their platform other than the immigration plank, while Democrats might have to consider what low-skilled migration, expanded in the service of cheap ethnic politics, is doing to their former working class base).