Why Obama might want to wait on immigration executive action

A new poll suggests that a plurality of Americans want President Obama to wait at least until next year before taking unilateral executive action on immigration.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President Obama speaks to the media in the White House in Washington.

A new USA Today poll finds that a plurality of Americans would prefer that the  resident wait until the new Congress has convened and been given an opportunity to act before taking unilateral action on immigration:

President Obama’s plan to sign an executive order on immigration, expected as early as this week, will meet more resistance than support, a new USA TODAY Poll finds. Close to half of those surveyed, 46%, say he should wait for the new Republican-controlled Congress to act, and another one in 10 are unconvinced either way.

Just 42% of Americans say he should take action now, findings that reflect a familiar partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. The president is considering an order that would prevent as many as 5 million people from being deported.

Admittedly, these numbers aren’t horrible for the president, and it may be the case that, when he does act, the details of the policy will be such that the public will largely support what he’s planning to do. However, it does indicate that there is, as I’ve mentioned before, some degree of political risk for Mr. Obama in acting here, just as there is for the Republican Congress. If the president acts and Republicans succeed in characterizing it as executive overreach rather than a step forward on immigration reform, then things are likely to inure to their political benefit with many Americans even if they end up being favored by certain segments of the public such as Latino voters.

By and large, for example, the public seems to disfavor the idea of the president going it alone on any issue, and that could end up hurting the president regardless of whether or not the details of the president’s proposed policies are something that the public is likely to support generally. Indeed, when you look at the details that have been leaked from the White House, it probably is the case that Americans are more likely to favor than disfavor what the president is thinking of doing. However, the support for the general policy ideas seems as though it will run headlong into the public’s desire that the president and Congress work together to get things done rather than engage in the kind of partisan battles that the president would likely set off if he were to act alone here.

As I’ve noted, if Obama were to go forward with the action threatened here, it would make the odds of the new Congress actually acting on immigration reform somewhere between slim and nonexistent. Admittedly, the odds that Republicans will act in this area are low to begin with but, if the logic behind the president’s threats of executive action are meant to prompt action from Congress, then acting in the manner that he is threatening before the new Congress has even convened and been given a chance to act, then you can write off the possibility of congressional action on the issue for the next two years entirely. More importantly, as Speaker John Boehner said, such action is likely to make the relationship between the new Congress and the president even worse than it might have been otherwise, making cooperation on even simple matters like the budget even more difficult.

Given all of this, it seems to me that there is almost no reason for the president to act now, in the waning weeks of the 113th Congress when it is quite obvious that the House is not going to take up a Senate bill that has laid dormant since July 2013. Notwithstanding the claims of the president and immigration activists, there is no great urgency that requires acting today rather than waiting until January when the new Congress convenes. At that point, the president can set forth a challenge to the new Congress, perhaps as part of the State of the Union, perhaps earlier, to put forward an immigration reform bill that addresses the points of concern to him, Latino voters, and others, and threaten that if they don’t act, then he will do what he has the legal authority to do in order to provide some form of intermediate, temporary relief.

Yes, it would be the same challenge he issued in July, but at this point, with the delay that was issued prior to the election there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason not to wait for the new Congress to act. If they don’t, and the president has made his case clear, then the American public would likely be behind him. If he acts before then, then he may just end up handing the GOP a political victory of sorts while simultaneously contributing to the very gridlock that is the cause of so much public frustration with Washington.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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