The Death of Immigration Reform Is Also the Death of Obama’s Restrained Leadership Experiment

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July 1 2014 6:11 PM

Lack of Trust in Obama Didn’t Kill Immigration Reform

GOP infighting did. But that still doesn’t leave the president with many options.

President Obama delivers remarks about the faltering immigration reform agenda.
President Obama is stuck between trying to lead, and accusations of going beyond his office.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It was fitting that the fate of immigration reform was sealed at a golf event: Both are interests shared by Barack Obama and John Boehner, but they’ll be neither golfing nor reforming immigration together anytime soon. Before a ceremony honoring the winners of the Presidents Cup, the House speaker relayed to the president that he was not going to schedule an immigration vote. The issue has been dead all year, but this put the headstone in the grass.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The death of immigration reform comes at a time when John Boehner is suing the president for exceeding his executive authority. The two are linked. Boehner and other House Republican leaders who want immigration reform say they couldn't pass anything, because their conference could never believe in a president who oversteps his authority so regularly. Why would the guy who ignored provisions in his health care law when it was politically convenient remain bound to the strict border-enforcement promises that would be required of any immigration reform that could get through the House? “The American people and their elected officials don't trust [the president] to enforce the law as written,” said Speaker Boehner. “Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue.”

Boehner may have a case to make about executive overreach. We’ll see when he releases his legislation initiating the suit later this month. But that's not what killed immigration reform. Internal conflicts within the GOP over the issue did. By making Obama overreach the sole reason for the death of immigration reform, the speaker risks making a legitimate grievance seem political and adaptable to any occasion. Got a leaky roof? Blame Obama overreach. 

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In conversations over the last few months with Republican senators and congressmen trying to reform the immigration system, opposition within conservative ranks emerged as the No. 1 reason for the lack of progress and dismal outlook for reform. No one wanted to have the internal political fight and risk alienating motivated grassroots voters in a year when Republicans have a chance of winning back control of the Senate. The fear of a backlash from those voters is what Boehner himself referred to in a video where he mocked the political fear of some of his members.

Part of the backlash would have come from the fact that any legislation that became law would have required making a deal with a president who conservatives distrust, but on immigration reform, they didn't trust other Republicans either. The voters of the 7th District in Virginia certainly didn't trust Eric Cantor. Proof of conservative distrust in Republicans was also evident last summer in the widespread opposition to the Senate immigration legislation. The bill, passed with 14 Republican votes after an amendment by Republican Sens. Bob Corker and John Hoeven, secured increased funding and promises for border security. Immigration-reform skeptics challenged the provision—which was meant to give political cover to Republicans—and made the legislation dead on arrival in the House. 

The president's response to the death of reform in the House was to announce that he will take whatever executive actions possible. This ends an experiment in restrained presidential leadership. President Obama had not been making a showy push for immigration reform in part because Boehner, among others, had advised him that Republicans would have a harder time supporting anything the president championed too strongly. One House leadership aide says Obama kept his promise on immigration, but it was action on those other issues that made conditions too toxic.

Now Obama is stuck between trying to lead and facing accusations of going beyond his office. In this moment of peak partisanship, a president faced with an opposition party in Congress can only achieve his objectives by pressing the boundaries of his office. The opposition party in Congress, with fewer members who share policy agreements with the president, is less willing to overlook infractions and benefits from crying foul more than ever. 

As John Hudak of the Brookings Institution points out, Obama’s ability to go it alone now is limited. He can move some money from existing accounts to the border to deal with the recent influx of thousands of Central American children. Republicans say that the crisis is the result of just the kind of power move they’re angry about. In a previous executive action, Obama granted children of undocumented immigrants a temporary reprieve from deportation, which gave false hope to the children flocking to the border. (Those children are not eligible for protection, and the president has vowed to return them to their home countries.) 

The president has tasked the lawyers at the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to come up with ideas for other actions he might take. If their responses are anything like the unilateral actions on school construction, the minimum wage, or manufacturing that have been a part of Obama's so-called “year of action,” they will be modest because the president is constrained by existing statutes. They will do very little to move Obama toward his larger immigration policy goals.

The president’s actions on immigration will hardly fit the “aggressive unilateralism” that Boehner accuses him of in his statement announcing his lawsuit. President Obama has said that Speaker Boehner’s lawsuit is a stunt, so he likely won’t worry about mounting a serious defense. But if he wanted to get the suit thrown out on the grounds that arguments about presidential overreach are purely political, he could cite the collapse of immigration reform as Exhibit A.