Well, I should confess something up-front. I found the president’s peroration deeply moving as an immigrant myself who has experienced a little of the fear and insecurity that being in some way on the wrong side of the immigration services can incur. The paradox of living somewhere and building a life and knowing that it can all be suddenly swept away; the thought of being separated from those you love – for ever; the stresses within families and marriages that such a shadowy existence can create. We need a full-throated defense of immigration in these cramped and narrow times, and the president was more than eloquent on that tonight – and made his case with a calm assurance and intensity. I’m gladdened by it – and I can only begin to appreciate how his words will have felt to millions of others.
Did he make the case that a mass deferral of deportations was the only option for him? Not so effectively. His strongest point was simply the phrase: “pass a bill.” Saying he is doing this as a temporary measure, that it will be superseded as soon as a law reaches his desk, gives him a stronger position than some suppose. There is more than one actor in our system. The president and the Senate have done their part; the House has resolutely refused to do its – by failing even to take a vote on the matter. Why, many will ask, can’t the Congress come up with a compromise that would forestall and over-rule this maneuver? What prevents the Republicans from acting in return to forestall this?
At the same time, he did not press the Reagan and Bush precedents. And his description of the current mess as a de facto amnesty was not as effective as he might have hoped. His early backing of even more spending on the border, his initial citing of the need for the undocumented to “get right with the law” by coming out of the shadows to pay back taxes, among other responsibilities, was a way to disarm conservative critics. It almost certainly won’t. But it remains a fact that the speech – in classic Obama style – blended conservative stringency with liberal empathy in equal parts.
Objectively, this is surely the moderate middle. Obama’s position on immigration – as on healthcare – has always been that. It’s utterly in line with his predecessor and with the Reagan era when many conservatives were eager for maximal immigration. His political isolation now is a function, first and foremost, of unrelenting Republican opposition and obstructionism. From time to time, then, it is more than good to see him openly challenge the box others want to put him in, to reassert that he has long been the reasonable figure on many of these debates, and to remind us that we have a president whose substantive proposals should, in any sane polity, be the basis for a way forward, for a compromise.
They are not, of course. And this act of presidential doggedness, after so long a wait, may well inflame the divisions further. I still have doubts about the wisdom of this strategy. But I see why this president refuses to give in, to cast his future to fate, to disappoint again a constituency he has pledged to in the past, and why he is re-stating his right as president to be a prime actor rather than a passive observer in the last two years of his term. That’s who many of us voted for. And we do not believe that the election of a Republican Senate in 2014 makes his presidency moot. Au contraire.
The branches are designed to clash and to jostle over public policy. And the Congress has one thing it can do now that it has for so long refused to do. It can act. And it should. The sooner the better.