Can the president of the United States, wielding a magic pen, simply exempt approximately 5 million illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation? You bet he can. He has the power to set law-enforcement priorities. In 2012, Barack Obama ordered that children brought across the border by their parents and raised in the U.S.–the so-called Dream Generation–should not be targeted for deportation. He can expand that ruling to their parents and others. Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush took similar actions on a smaller scale. The question is, why on earth would the President want to do it now, after the disastrous election of 2014? Newly minted Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said it would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” which may have been more artful than literal. McConnell also said that he wouldn’t shut down the government (nor will the Republican leadership move toward impeachment). The President may have simply calculated that signing his executive actions would be more like waving a tissue in front of a goat.
It is not impossible that Obama is playing some hard-nosed politics here, even if his primary motivation is soft-nosed and idealistic. It is simple humanitarian justice not to separate families by deporting the parents of the Dream Generation. If John Boehner had brought last year’s bipartisan Senate immigration bill to a vote in the House, the situation might have been happily resolved. “But it’s like waiting for a bus that never comes,” says David Axelrod, a former Obama aide. The Republican definition of immigration reform is unacceptable to most Democrats. It consists of more money for border security and a fast track for skilled foreigners who want to immigrate; it does not include a path to legality for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here. Obama no doubt calculated that negotiations with the GOP on this issue were futile. On top of that, the President may not be too pleased with the members of his inner circle who told him to delay his executive actions last summer for “political” reasons, as he so awkwardly put it–that is, to save some Democratic Senate candidates who ultimately could not be saved. This President does not like to come off as tawdry or political. A quick executive move now is a way to rectify the games he’s played with Latinos.
But it also may be effective politics. In the long term, every time the Republicans start screaming and stomping about illegal Mexicans, it cements the Latino relationship with the Democratic Party, a demographic boon. There will certainly be a lot of screaming when Obama goes ahead with his plan–and then we will celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, a traditionally fallow political period, and the immigration issue will be ancient history by the time McConnell convenes his Republican-majority Senate in January. Hence, another calculation: Despite the immigration order, the Republicans will still want to do business with the President. They will want to demonstrate that gridlock was all Harry Reid’s fault. The Republican Senators up for re-election in 2016 will need some bacon to bring home. There are trade bills that Republicans will certainly want to pass, and infrastructure bills, and perhaps even some tax reform. Obama will share the credit for those middling triumphs, and he’ll seem tough besides, having blasted through the “red flag” and gotten stuff done.
But there will be consequences. By moving ahead with the immigration plan, Obama sacrifices any leeway he might have had with Republicans on a range of more difficult issues. He was going to have a tough time selling an Iran nuclear deal–if there is such a deal–to Congress, but it could become impossible now. There will be all sorts of Obamacare challenges, some of which might have been avoided if the President had not pierced the illusion of comity. Democrats will argue that Obama was played for a sucker every time he anticipated the possibility of Republican compromise, and there is a lot to that. But that may well have been the last war. The coming legislative battles could be more subtle and pliable.
“He may be trying to goad us into doing something stupid” like shutting down the government or moving toward impeachment, says Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander. “But that’s not going to happen.” Indeed, Republicans have been talking in more surgical fiscal terms–defunding specific programs, like those that would implement the executive actions, rather than a wholesale shutdown. Worse, Obama’s immigration actions, noble as they might be, fly in the face of the national mood. At a moment when the public desperately wants some sort of reconciliation, he is sticking a finger in McConnell’s eye. After playing the reasonable grownup for the first six years of his presidency, he is giving up the high ground.
TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland
This appears in the December 01, 2014 issue of TIME.