July 1

President Obama, with Vice President Biden in the background, pauses while making an announcement about immigration reform in the Rose Garden. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama went to the Rose Garden and denounced Republican obstructionism on the issue of immigration, pledging to take executive action to address the issue. At a time when Republicans are making Obama’s alleged executive overreach the centerpiece of their political strategy, it was a pretty blatant thumb in the opposition’s eye. The coming confrontation over immigration could be dangerous for both sides.

Here’s some of what Obama said:

I believe Speaker Boehner when he says he wants to pass an immigration bill. I think he genuinely wants to get something done. But last week he informed the Republicans will continue to block a vote on immigration reform at least for the remainder of this year. Some in the House Republican caucus are using the situation with unaccompanied children as their newest excuse to do nothing. Now I want everybody to think about that. Their argument seems to be that because the system’s broken, we shouldn’t make an effort to fix it. It makes no sense. It’s not on the level. It’s just politics, plain and simple.

Now there are others in the Republican caucus in the House who are arguing that they can’t act because they’re mad at me about using my executive authority too broadly. This also makes no sense. I don’t prefer taking administrative action. I’d rather see permanent fixes to the issue we face.

Certainly that’s true on immigration. I’ve made that clear multiple times. I would love nothing more than bipartisan legislation to pass the House, the Senate, land on my desk, so I can sign it.

That’s true about immigration. It’s true about the minimum wage. It’s true about equal pay. There are a whole bunch of things where I would greatly prefer Congress actually do something.

I take executive action only when we have a serious problem, a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing.

Obama is basically accurate in his characterization of Republican arguments, even if he portrays them in an uncomplimentary way. They do indeed argue that they won’t pass an immigration bill because they don’t trust the president to enforce it properly. Which is just an invitation for him to take executive action, making them more angry, to which he can respond, I’m only doing this because you won’t pass a bill. And since Democrats have worked just as hard to convince the public that Republicans are insanely obstructionist as Republicans have to convince the public that Obama is a tyrant, the president’s response isn’t hard to explain to people; they understand by now that Republicans are opposed to passing immigration reform. So the places where Republicans have been the most recalcitrant are those where Obama is most likely to be emboldened to move aggressively.

Of course, that then feeds the Republicans’ case that he’s acting outside his authority. So as we go forward, Republicans will be making a process argument (Obama doesn’t have the right to do whatever he’s doing), while Obama will be making both a process argument (I’m acting only because they won’t) and a substantive argument (my actions are moving toward a solution to the problems of the immigration system).

Obama knows full well that few issues tie the GOP in knots like immigration. Boehner and other national leaders want to pass reform in order to convince Hispanic voters that the Republican party is not hostile toward them. But individual Republican members of the House, most of whom come from safely conservative districts, have no interest in comprehensive reform, or anything that goes beyond building more fences and hiring more border patrol agents. So if he’s going to force a confrontation with the opposition, this is as good an issue to do it on as any.

Where will that leave us a year or two from now? There’s no way to know for sure, but the tools the president has at his disposal to act in the absence of legislation are limited almost by definition. He may be able to deal with certain facets of the overall immigration challenge, but it’s going to take comprehensive reform legislation to get anything like a long-term solution. So by the time we get to the end of his term, we’ll probably be in roughly the same place we are now: Republicans complaining that Obama is exceeding his authority (maybe true, maybe not), Obama complaining that House Republicans are obstructing legislation (certainly true) and the fundamental immigration problem still unsolved.