WASHINGTON -- To hear David Axelrod tell it, despite all of the political risks of President Barack Obama's sweeping move to end the threat of deportation for more than 4 million undocumented immigrants, the political pros and cons didn't really matter to the president in the end.
The decision, the former White House adviser told me, was more about principle than politics for the mixed-race son of Kenya and Kansas who reveres Lincoln and wants to build a legacy of a tolerant, welcoming American community. Unburdened by the need to run for re-election and reminded daily by immigration advocates of his many promises of reform, Obama acted out of personal conviction and an acute sense of his own role in American history. Think of it as Lincoln Lite.
"The president wanted to keep faith with these people, and he wanted to do right by them," Axelrod said. "There's no hidden motive."
But even if one accepts that narrative for the president's move -- which supporters are comparing to the Emancipation Proclamation -- the decision is a political depth charge that is already surfacing deep, disruptive emotions across the country. Indisputably, it is one of the most consequential decisions of the Obama presidency.
Here's a look at the political balance sheet.
Obama's action now creates new real-world conditions that the GOP will find it difficult to unwind, even if they get serious about passing a new immigration law. Some 5 million "mixed status" families can have the chance to live without fear that their loved ones will be sent away. Would the GOP seriously want to frighten them all over again?
- Nearly two-thirds of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are Hispanic, and Obama's decision is outreach en masse. In 2012, Latinos voted more than 2-1 for Obama, and health care reform was one of the top issues. Another was the expectation that he would tackle immigration reform. His latest move isn't "reform" per se, but it has been seen by the community as a step in the right direction.
The White House can make a compelling argument that it is honoring a long American tradition that the GOP claims to hold dear: the preservation of "intact" families.
The group with the clearest claim to legal standing to sue Obama would be undocumented immigrants who are excluded by the new policy. Were they to win in court, the administration would then be forced to extend the policy to more people -- the very opposite of what the GOP would want. "That would be an amusing and, some would say, wonderful result," said political scientist John Hudak of the Brookings Institution.
The administration's move seems to be on pretty firm legal ground, with officials citing the recent Supreme Court case in which Arizona had sued to compel the president to enforce federal immigration laws to the letter in the state. The court, with Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority, ruled that the state could not dictate federal "enforcement" decisions.
Obama and his advisers have good reason to expect the GOP to overreact with a fury that its leadership could find difficult to control. And that could easily result in raw anti-immigrant -- and anti-Hispanic -- reaction by some. At the very least, the issue is likely to continue to divide his GOP opponents, a division that already shows signs of reaching crippling levels.
- The president has a weak track record on implementing and explaining his massive new programs. His unsupportable assurances about the Affordable Care Act are infamous, and the website's initial rollout was a shambles. In his immigration speech, he made the new rules sound simple, but the implementation will almost certainly be complicated and confusing. Who will do millions of background checks? And how will they be paid for?
Overall public support for this move is low, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. It found that while 74 percent of those polled support passage of an immigration reform law along the lines of what the Senate approved in 2013, voters disapprove of Obama's unilateral action by a margin of 48 percent against to 38 percent in support. "There is a risk that voters are going to regard this as overreach," said a top White House official, who spoke on background so as not to seem to be publicly questioning the decision. "And sympathy for undocumenteds has diminished somewhat. It isn't as clear cut as it was a year ago."
Obama's supporters seem to have a 'go ahead make my day' confidence in the face of GOP criticism, noting the deep divisions among their opponents, who have struggled to make the desired inroads among Hispanic, Asian-American and other minority voters. But the pro-Obama camp risks being too cute by half: A government shutdown over the fate of undocumented immigrants would not necessarily be an easy PR battle to win.
The move potentially gives a more prominent platform to Sen. Ted Cruz. It may be shrewd strategy for Democrats in the narrow sense. But do they really want to make a star of a man who compares Obama to a Roman tyrant and appeals to the American public's most raw and resentful emotions?
Democrats also need to be careful what they wish for. Brookings' Hudak suggests that while Obama's executive action is on firm constitutional grounds, its size and scope could set an undesirable precedent. There was a time when Democrats were the ones denouncing an "imperial presidency." In Washington, it's been proven that what goes around comes around -- again and again.
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