November 11, 2014
The Salt Lake Tribune
In a fit of post-election modesty, President Barack Obama is offering not to take executive action to amnesty millions of illegal immigrants — provided Republicans do his bidding on immigration.
It is extortion as conciliation. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie often invites comparisons to “The Sopranos,” but it is President Obama who is making a tactic out of the HBO mob drama his major postelection initiative. His bipartisan outreach now ends with a pointed “Or else …”
This offer Republicans can’t refuse includes the stipulation that the president will revoke his executive action in the event they pass legislation to his liking. How generous of him. We should all be pleased that he isn’t threatening Republican leaders with the release of compromising photos — yet.
Obama’s tack on immigration speaks to a president who is out of sorts and out of step, and recognizes his own political impotence. Unable to build a political case for one of his chief second-term priorities, he has to fall back on executive usurpation.
Prior to the election, the president delayed his threatened amnesty — perhaps legalizing millions of immigrants — because it might harm Democrats. It still became an election issue, with Republicans hammering away at it and winning resoundingly. Even a relative dove on immigration like Cory Gardner, the Republican senator-elect from Colorado, opposed the Obama executive action.
This electoral rebuke might give a less highhanded president pause. Not President Obama. He rules from an Olympian height above mere election results and mere constitutional constraints on his power.
The president says that he’d still “prefer” that Congress itself change the immigration laws. For him, this is a positively Madisonian expression of respect for the American constitutional scheme.
President Obama is distressed that the Senate passed an immigration bill by a wide, bipartisan margin and the House refused to take it up. Fine. That is his right. He has legitimate means to respond.
For one, he could have barnstormed the country for amnesty during the election campaign, seeking to defeat officeholders and candidates who don’t share his view on immigration. This is how legislative majorities are built. Of course, he was too unpopular even to appear in most parts of the country, let alone convince anyone of anything.
With the election past, he can still build the political case for an amnesty and pressure House Republicans to act. If he could turn up the political heat enough, he might make House Speaker John Boehner buckle. This is highly unlikely, though, given that the country is not up in arms demanding an even laxer immigration system.
When it comes down to it, fiat is the only means for President Obama to reliably get his way. His promised executive action is a substitute for democratic politics, not an exercise in it.
He says we can no longer wait on immigration, but the reason that Republicans obtained so much leverage over the issue in the first place is that President Obama didn’t make it a priority in his first two years in office, when Democrats had large congressional majorities. Other things were more important to him. He preferred to wait. Now that Republicans, too, prefer to wait, he considers it an intolerable provocation.
No matter how frustrated the president is, there is no Chagrined and Impatient Clause in the Constitution that allows him to effectively make his own laws when he is irked at Congress. If so, Congress would have been neutered at the beginning. American presidents have been irked at Congress for as long as there have been presidents and a Congress.
What President Obama is threatening is not only politically graceless — a rude gesture at the public, as Ron Fournier of the National Journal puts it — it is a profound distortion of the mechanisms of American government. But in a political environment defined by the reaction to his ideological overreach and misgovernment, blackmail is all he’s got.