“Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability. A common sense middle-ground approach. If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.” This was the main argument behind President Obama’s long-awaited immigration speech delivered last night.
What is most striking about those sentences is that they could have just as easily been uttered by a Republican President. The combination of compassion, accountability and toughness would not have been out of place in a speech from President George W. Bush who ran as a compassionate conservative, the senior President Bush who governed as a centrist on many issues, or Ronald Reagan who presided over our country’s last major immigration reform. Mr. Obama’s use of Republican buzzwords like “accountability,” “middle-ground,” “law,” “criminal,” and “deported” is noteworthy. Moreover, his rejection of mass amnesty and illegal entry into the U.S. is consistent with Republican positions.
Presidential speeches and government policy are not the same thing. Additionally, Republican displeasure with the President is probably as much about the substance of the proposed immigration reform as it is about the President’s use of executive orders to circumvent Congress. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) summarized the concerns of many colleagues: “The President’s unilateral action announced today fails to address the root causes of the dysfunction in our immigration system, including an insecure border, the absence of a rational, efficient guest worker program to meet America’s urgent labor needs, and a broken system for legal immigration, which fails those around the world who seek the American dream by actually following our laws.” Concerns about the President’s use of an executive order are grounded in the ongoing institutional battle between the legislature and the executive branch, as well as Republican animus towards Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama has demonstrated an ability to bounce back from a solid electoral defeat with bafflingly renewed enthusiasm and energy. He has also put the Republican Party in a difficult position. As President, Mr. Obama, even after a bad midterm election, is still able to set the policy agenda for the country.
Immigration cannot be the issue on which the new Republican Congress wants to make its first battle with the President. The issue does not provide Republicans with the same opportunity to score easy political points as, for example, taxes, the still lackadaisical economy or various foreign policy crises. The President has staked out a position that is both reasonable sounding and not without precedent while, at least rhetorically, presenting it as based on accountability and law and order. Opposition to the President’s position will possibly make Republicans in congress seem angry and intolerant, the precise perceptions they need to avoid if they want to build on their impressive 2014 victory. Additionally, by forcing the Republicans into the anti-immigrant position, the President helps constrict Republican electoral support by making it hard for them to appeal to Latino voters.
Republican anger at the President is real, partially because of his use of an executive order, but also partially because he has not given in after the midterm elections. However, the Republicans have at least a few years with majorities in both houses of Congress. Using that time wisely, rather than using all their political capital so early and potentially ineffectively is at the heart of the challenge the new majority now faces.
Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for The Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.