Does Obama’s executive action on immigration demonstrate that he has fallen into the second-term trap that ensnared so many of his predecessors?
Two years ago, looking ahead to Obama’s reelection, I posted this piece warning about the “history of past presidents who won a second term in office.” The danger, I wrote then “is that the combination of a reduced window of opportunity to enact policy and political change combined with an overwhelming desire to enhance one’s presidential legacy can prove politically lethal.” This was particularly true, I argued, because presidents who are freed from having to face the electorate often display a stunning lack of political sensitivity. At the same time, having successfully won reelection – often by large margins – they tend to overstate the degree to which voters have given them a mandate to pursue treasured policy objectives. As evidence, I cited examples including FDR’s court-packing scheme, Reagan’s Iran-contra affair and the second Bush’s effort to push social security reform. I might also have cited Nixon’s budget impoundments and, perhaps, Clinton’s sexual dalliance with Monica as well.
Today I have a piece up at U.S. News that considers whether Obama’s decision to take executive action designed to defer deportation proceedings against up to five million undocumented immigrants, and to allow many of them to work legally, fits within this historical pattern of second-term overreach. My tentative conclusion – subject to correction by you, dear readers – is that Obama has needlessly jeopardized his political standing, but this does not necessarily mean he will suffer the same degree of political fallout that befell his presidential predecessors. Much depends on how Republicans respond to Obama’s misstep.
As I note in my U.S. News piece, my judgment is not based on the belief that Obama has overstepped his formal powers. Legitimate arguments regarding the legality of Obama’s executive action can be found on both sides of the legal issue. But those who assess Obama’s action solely on legal or constitutional grounds are missing the bigger picture – whether Obama suffers the fate of his predecessors will be determined by the political process, not a legal one. That is, ultimate judgment will be rendered by the public, as expressed through the actions of their elected representatives and as mediated by the press in all its variegated forms. That verdict will depend in part on how congressional Republicans respond. Their potential choices run the gamut from voting to censure the President, withholding funding from relevant agencies, or blocking confirmation of nominees to key positions such Attorney General, to cite some of the publicly-discussed options.
But the greater concern for Obama, I think, is the long-term impact of his immigration action on his relations with Congress and on political support for his presidency more generally. In the U.S. News piece, I raise this question: “If the President’s actions on immigration, as announced yesterday, essentially poisons his relations with Congress for the remaining two years of his presidency, thus foreclosing efforts to pass climate change legislation, or to address tax reform or entitlement programs – was it worth it?” The short answer, I think, is no – it will not be worth it. This is because, in my view, immigration was the one issue that had the potential for Obama and congressional Republicans to strike a bipartisan deal in no small part because Republicans had an electoral incentive to do something to shore up their support among Hispanics. In his memoirs, former president George W. Bush acknowledges that he should have pursued a bipartisan immigration bill first after his reelection, rather than opting for social security reform which was a much tougher bill to pass. By pursuing social security reform, Bush believes he further polarized an already divided Congress, making subsequent efforts to deal with immigration impossible. Such is my fear with Obama’s decision to go it alone via executive action – it needlessly inflames an already volatile situation, and at exactly the wrong moment: when Republicans are feeling their oats after coming off a convincing midterm victory. As House Speaker John Boehner made clear in his statement today, Republicans are going to retaliate for Obama’s actions with untold consequences for future relations between the two branches.
To be fair to Obama, it is always difficult to weigh uncertain long-term costs against clear and immediate short-term gains. There is an argument to be made, moreover, that Obama has put Republicans into a box because any effort by them to move against Obama on immigration risks alienating the growing bloc of Hispanic voters heading into the 2016 elections. But Obama could have just as easily accomplished that goal by forcing Republicans to negotiate a comprehensive legislative immigration fix, or else risk alienating Hispanics, and at less political cost. Moreover, as several critics have suggested, Obama’s action may set a dangerous precedent that future presidents, including Republicans, can cite to justify ignoring or changing law on their own.
For all these reasons, my initial reaction is that Obama has needlessly risked his already diminished political clout. If so, he would not be the first president to fall prey to the second-term combination of political hubris rooted in decreasing political sensitivity and a desire to burnish one’s political legacy. But the fact that previous presidents have made similar mistakes ought not to excuse Obama’s behavior. Instead, assuming my analysis is correct, it raises the question as to why he didn’t avoid following in their footsteps.