On more than a handful of occasions while speaking before reliably liberal or Hispanic audiences, President Barack Obama has tamped down their expectations for immigration reform. He has reminded several audiences that he is not a “king” nor is he the “emperor of the United States.” Furthermore, Obama insisted that he cannot simply ignore existing immigration law passed by Congress because “that’s not how our system works.”
Well, Obama seems keen to test his constitutionally-imposed limitations tonight when he plans to announce the implementation of portions of the failed Senate immigration reform bill unilaterally and without congressional consent.
“There are laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system,” Obama told a Univision audience in 2011. “That for me to simply ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president.”
“And you know what? He was right then and he’s right now,” White House Political Director David Simas told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on Thursday.
Simas continued: “It’s not appropriate for the president, by fiat, to say that he can do every single thing that was in the comprehensive immigration reform bill that was passed by a bipartisan majority in the Senate 512 days ago,” he added. “What you’re going to hear tonight are very limited actions, fully within his existing authority, similar to those types of actions that have been taken by every single president, Democrat and Republican, since Dwight Eisenhower.”
This is instructive as to how the White House plans to shore up the shaky political ground upon which the president is standing. First, the Obama’s aides will do as Simas said and link Obama’s actions to his predecessors to establish precedent – even citing, as many a progressive blogger has, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan who both announced reforms to the immigration system in a similar fashion.
That’s a dubious defense at best. As David Frum wrote in The Atlantic, Bush and Reagan’s reforms were smaller, made in conjunction with Congress, and were ultimately policy failures anyway. Nevertheless, you go to war with the army you have, as it were, and this is the administration’s first line of defense.
The second bulwark upon which the White House hopes to dash Republican attacks was revealed by Roll Call correspondent Steven Dennis. The administration will selectively respond to its critics – particularly those who have most inaccurately framed this executive order – so as to discredit the majority of conservatives who oppose it on more accurate grounds.
“On amnesty,” a memo distributed to Hill Democrats via the White House read, “taxes and background checks aren’t amnesty. That’s accountability. Doing nothing – that’s amnesty.”
“We need to focus on deporting felons, not families; criminals, not children,” the memo continued.
The White House won’t even be bothering to address educated and compelling arguments like those issued by Frum. They will, instead, focus on refuting barely cogent and perfectly offensive statements like those made by outgoing Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) who yesterday told reporters Obama’s directive was aimed at creating more “illiterate” Democratic voters.
While those are not especially honest defensive tactics, they are all the White House has going for it today. These are uncharted waters.