The president, arguably, delivered a powerful speech last night. The outlines of what he will order are not inconsistent with aspects of what many envision as necessary steps to address the realities of our current immigration system and circumstances. There were five key aspects: additional border security, facilitate high-skilled immigration, suspend deportation for millions who were not going to be deported anyway, prioritize the deportation of illegal immigrants involved in crime and address families where portions of the family are legal and portions are not. The president is correct, deporting millions is unrealistic and likely counterproductive.
There are, however, problems with context, motivation and competence, even assuming the legality of his actions.
Had this speech been delivered in the context of a legislative proposal as opposed to an executive order, it is not difficult to imagine a groundswell of support sufficient to motivate Congress to act and the American people to rally in support of that legislation. The president eschewed proposed legislation, instead choosing the option that he knew would generate broad opposition and potentially bad behavior. The president opted for doing the right thing the wrong way; once again, his actions were contrary to public opinion and Constitutional limitations.
It is difficult to come to an opinion other than the president’s elegant rhetoric was political bait for his opposition, with immigrants serving as the pawn in the game. If Obama’s motivation is as he describes it, why now? Why not when he had the power to pass legislation in his first two years in office, when opposition was simply insufficient to stop him? He did not want reform; he wanted the issue to inflame his base and club his opposition. His new-found sense of urgency is a hollow guise based on his sense of the politics.
It is clearly in Republican self-interest, in the new Congress, to address immigration reform. If two Houses of Congress pass a bill that “the president can sign,” they take a chunk out of his potential legacy as Obama will have to share the stage. If Republicans address immigration reform in a common-sense manner, with an eye to the realities, the Democratic meme of “Republicans hate immigrants” goes by the board as does the sense of automatic orientation to the Democratic Party.
There is also the question of competence as growing numbers of Americans question the ability of the administration to effectively manage the government. In recent Gallup polling, 81% of Americans said they felt their government would “do what’s right” only some of the time. According to a CNN/ORC poll, a majority of Americans believe the proper focus is to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants. The combination of competence, trust, and the opinions of Americans will cast severe doubt on the president’s ability to effectuate the potential complexities of his executive order, despite the simplicity of his outline. Americans are coming to understand that presidential rhetoric has too often been based on lies and subterfuge, the recent Jonathan Gruber revelations casting yet another pall on the presidents credibility. Americans also know that the president’s order will be executed by a bureaucracy that demonstrates ongoing incompetence and a focus more political than productive. J.E. Dyer points out in this space that the Secure Fence Act was passed by both houses of Congress in 2006 and that of the 700 miles approved only 36.3 miles have been built. Americans come to know in greater and greater numbers that the president picks and chooses his “faithful execution” of the law and expect he will do so again.
The president, as he has many times in the past, had a choice between leadership and confrontation, between bringing people together or splitting them apart. Honoring the legislative process or going it alone. We can say this for the president: He’s consistent!