The Presidential Balancing Act
How can Obama cut a deal with Republicans on immigration while at the same time beating them up over the budget?
The president is not always turning up the pressure. This gets us to the second phone call. Last weekend a draft of the president's immigration legislation had leaked. Republicans were immediately suspicious. The president had publicly said he wanted Congress to take up this task, but the leaked document suggested he was either hatching his own plan to circumvent negotiations or trying to influence the existing plan by leaking to the press. No one can blame Republicans for reacting this way, particularly in these partisan times. The president is busy raising the pressure on Republicans in the sequester fight; why wouldn't he do the same on immigration?
That is the difficulty of negotiating with a party on one issue while you're battering them on another. So, the president called Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain to talk to them about immigration. According to White House aides, the call was not primarily about exchanging substantive ideas. But unlike the calls on the sequester, the lack of substance didn't mean the call was pure theater. The president was calling to explain to the suspicious Republicans that he wasn't trying to sabotage the bipartisan efforts to reform immigration.
Republicans have asked Obama not to meddle on immigration. He's supposed to stay out of the way and be a follower. The reason is that the more he is associated with the legislation, the less likely Republicans will vote for it. On the sequester, Republicans define presidential leadership as reaching out to Congress. But when it comes to immigration reform, they are asking the president to show leadership by keeping his distance.
So far the president has taken his cue and has eased off on the pressure. Every indication for the moment is that he wants an immigration deal and he knows that, unlike with the budget, aggression is less helpful than compromise. Why is there a difference? The election inspired some Republicans to loosen their position on immigration reform. It did not shake their feelings about the desirability of tax increases.
When the president spoke about immigration reform in Las Vegas in late January, he was specific about the details he wanted to see in any final legislation. That rankled Republicans in Congress who thought he was meddling in the legislation they were carefully trying to craft. A little more than a week later, when the president talked about the issue in his State of the Union address, he was less specific. Republicans trying to cobble together a deal were grateful. They saw it as a dialing down of presidential pressure. That was their view, at least, until the leak last weekend.
In the end, the leaked White House draft may help close an immigration deal. Sen. Rubio attacked it the minute the details hit the Internet. Some conservatives are suspicious of Rubio's efforts to reach a compromise with Democrats. Bashing the president's plan let the freshman from Florida show he's still fighting for conservative principles, which in this case means stricter enforcement against new illegal immigrants before granting amnesty for existing lawbreakers. White House aides say that wasn't the plan—they wanted to keep the details of the president's plan secret—but they're happy to let the leak play that role. With the president so regularly antagonizing the GOP, White House aides recognize that any deal with Republicans might require giving those same Republicans some opportunities to show how much they disagree with the man they're eventually going to agree with.