Why the President Will Go Through with His Threat to Act Unilaterally on Immigration Policy

Article author: 
Stanley Renshon
Article publisher: 
Center for Immigration Studies
Article date: 
20 November 2014
Article category: 
National News
Article Body: 

The president has placed himself in a box of his own making. The construction of that box began in 2008 when he first ran for the presidency. At a campaign event, he said this about his commitment to passing "comprehensive immigration reform": "I will make it a top priority of my first year as president."1

He didn't...

The president tried to frame his signature health care bill as designed to contribute to the economy, but the public was unconvinced and the bill did nothing to diminish their concern that his emphasis had been misplaced and that he had not responded to their economic concerns.3 The president's $800 billion stimulus package was more clearly designed to inject large amounts of government spending into the economy to stimulate it, but it, too, failed to achieve its purposes.

As a result of the mismatch between the president's policy ambitions and his clearly stated preferences, he and his party received a "shellacking" in the 2010 midterms and the immigration bill that the president had promised in his first year of his term never materialized...

The president's 2012 reelection set off alarm bells among many Republican leaders, a fear fiercely fanned by Democrats and their allies. Obama received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared to Mitt Romney's 27 percent.8 The choice, many GOP Washington leaders and pundits argued, was between adapting to the new demographic realities of a far more diverse American population or risking electoral decline and perhaps obscurity.

As a result, when with the help of four Republican senators the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill written primarily by Democratic staff members, there was heavy pressure for House Republicans to follow suit. They didn't, and the president was again placed in the position of disappointing his liberal and Hispanic activist supporters who pressed him to take matters in his own presidential hands through executive action...

The president... promised his Hispanic advocacy groups and other liberal allies that he would push for "comprehensive" immigration legislation, including substantially increasing legal immigration and providing a "pathway to citizenship" for the 11-12 [to 40] million illegal migrants [aliens] already living in the country...

Worse, the election of a Republican House and Senate means that the president's aspirations for a place in history, of being ranked as a "great" presidential figure, on a par with FDR and Lincoln, with whom he identifies, have been dashed — though "squandered" is perhaps a more accurate word.

In his single-minded quest for "greatness" through big transformative legislation, Obama chose not to focus on the ailing American economy and sacrificed the bipartisan opportunities he might have had or created had he opted simply to be a good president instead of a great one.

At every turn in his presidency — when he first won election in 2008, after the 2010 midterm "shellacking", after his reelection in 2012, and after the most recent repudiation of his leadership in the 2014 midterm elections, he could have turned toward the center, but chose not to do so...

Instead, his one signature achievement, his health care bill, for which he spurned immigration legislation in his first two years and which was supposed to ensure his presidential and historical legacy, is widely disliked by much of the public and may not survive judicial review or a Republican Congress in anything like its present form.

The country wanted bipartisan and economic progress. The president wanted greatness.

The president's legacy hunger is impossible to satisfy at this late date, given his present political circumstances and past political mistakes. He seems to know this. Facing a public largely disappointed in him and his leadership, and a declining cadre of fervent supporters, the president is now turning to his one remaining legacy card: executive action on immigration...

Predictable Republican opposition is not likely to dissuade this president from pursuing his dreams of glory, cementing his view of himself as the nation's moral compass and avatar, helping to ensure a new large ethnic constituency for his party, and being associated with the president, Abraham Lincoln, with whom he has repeatedly identified himself...


Stanley Renshon is a professor of political science at the City University of New York and a certified psychoanalyst. He is also a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.