No one will ever mistake President Barack Obama for Lyndon Johnson, the master legislator as president. He doesn’t really do congressional schmoozing or arm-twisting. Compromise and deal-cutting are beneath him. Once he lost the Democratic supermajorities of 2009-2010 and the power to push things through Congress by sheer brute force, his legislating essentially came to an end.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that even the niceties of unilateral lawmaking are beyond him.
When it became clear that House Republicans weren’t going to act on so-called comprehensive immigration reform over the summer, President Obama thundered in the Rose Garden in June that he would act on his own to fix the system. He told representatives of immigration groups that he would move at the end of summer. Activists encouraged him with the hashtag #GoBigObama.
Now, he’s not going #Big, or #Small, or #In-between. He’s going to pass. The White House let it be known over the weekend that it is putting off executive action on immigration at least until after the election. In his June remarks, the president said, “If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours.” If, he should have added, the politics are congenial.
The president loves to say, when promoting his unilateral powers, that “we can’t wait.” Actually, we clearly can wait when the political futures of swing-state Democrats are at stake. Then, waiting is the only prudent course. Waiting is wise. Good for the country. The — insert furrowed brow here — right thing to do.
On “Meet the Press” over the weekend, President Obama said in one breath that politics wasn’t the reason for the delay, and then in another that “the politics did shift midsummer” with the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America.
But he’s above political considerations himself, naturally. He says he wants “to make sure that the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted,” as if governing by diktat is as tricky as getting a bill through markup in the House Judiciary Committee. The “obstructionists” are no longer Republicans in Congress, but the lawyers and policy mavens in his own administration.
Of course, the president has managed to make other unilateral moves on immigration — gutting interior enforcement and granting de facto amnesty to DREAM children — with all due dispatch. What’s different this time is that Senate Democrats were begging him not to wield his famous pen and phone, for fear his blatantly unconstitutional act would inflame Republicans, turn off independents and cost them their Senate majority.
Their collective posture is that the president should trample the separation of powers and render their institution irrelevant in two months’ time rather than right now, when voters have an immediate recourse in the November elections.
Even some of the president’s usual allies are outraged by the cynicism of the delay and accuse him of throwing Latinos under the bus. But what did they expect? His tough talk on the immigration executive action is the domestic equivalent of the Syrian “red line” fiasco, when he made bold statements without thinking about what it meant to follow through and then backed off.
The White House insists that the president will still act by the end of the year. But it will be even harder to defend his administrative amnesty as an urgent response to a national crisis if he’s so obviously played politics with the timing.
Republicans should make the evidently still-impending immigration order a top issue in the midterms. The first step to any meaningful immigration reform is real enforcement, and as a matter of law, the president doesn’t get to decide who comes here, lives here and works here on his own.
The president may not be very good at unilateral lawmaking, but it is an offense to the Constitution and self-government all the same. His executive amnesty will be just as poisonous and outrageous come December.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.