The Washington Post

Why is immigration going so much better for Obama than the budget?

One of the most important questions for President Obama and Congress is why the 2012 election produced so much bipartisan support for an overhaul of immigration laws – and so little for a sweeping budget deal.

On the surface, there’s no obvious reason why it should be so much harder to do a budget agreement than an immigration deal. Obama won a decisive electoral victory in 2012 in a campaign in which immigration, taxes and spending were all major issues. Polls showed Americans sided with Obama on those issues, and they continue to do so today. According to Washington Post-ABC News polls from March, 57 percent of Americans supported a pathway to citizenship, while 56 percent supported replacing the deep spending cuts known as sequestration with a plan to limit tax deductions for the wealthy. That’s Obama’s proposal.

(Charles Dharapak/AP)

In his news conference on Tuesday, Obama expressed confidence that Congress would overhaul immigration laws – what he said would be an “historic achievement” – while he was less optimistic about whether he could achieve a grand bargain on the debt. Somehow, the election and public opinion more generally have produced two different outcomes. On immigration, Senate Republicans – led by 2016 presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) – are eager to strike and sell a deal. But they seem content to stand their ground on the budget.

Why? The question has prompted much discussion about the structural forces shaping Congress – and Obama’s limited power to overcome them. The conventional thinking is that on immigration, Republicans are in survival mode: They recognize they need Hispanics to win national elections. On the other hand, Republicans do not see much to lose in a budget fight with Obama, and they see much more to lose if they make themselves vulnerable to primary challenges from the right.

This argument is elegant in that it looks at the incentives facing Republicans, and to a large degree it is fair. But it’s also an oversimplification. Obama’s role has been more important than it may seem in shaping the political forces in Washington, but the underlying dynamics favoring an immigration deal and auguring against a budget agreement are even stronger than many recognize.

In asking why Republicans seem responsive to public opinion on immigration but impervious on the budget, consider the following chart:

It’s extremely unlikely that Republicans would be considering an immigration deal in the absence of Obama’s aggressive pursuit of an overhaul. In words and action, Obama forced Republicans to take a position on the issue. He also created space for more voters to support a pathway to citizenship by being quite tough on illegal immigrants facing deportation – often to the displeasure of the Hispanic community. Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, staked out a far different position, opposing any pathway to citizenship. Republicans were savaged on Election Day: exit polling showed Obama winning Hispanics by 44 percentage points.

While there’s some debate about exactly how important Hispanics were to Obama’s overall victory, Republicans have concluded that immigration is an issue with a clear political consequence. But it's not a particularly meaningful issue to them. It's not a core brand party issue. A Post-ABC poll in January found that only 17 percent of Republicans said immigration is a top priority. What’s more, offering a pathway to citizenship is not anathema to GOP orthodoxy. While a Post-ABC poll in March found six in 10 Republicans opposing such a measure, President Ronald Reagan oversaw a general amnesty, and President George W. Bush tried to overhaul immigration laws but failed. In 2004, Bush garnered a larger percentage of the Hispanic vote than most Republican candidates, a voting group that seems likely to grow only in size and importance over time. There's no group of outsize power threatening to primary Republicans who sign on to immigration.

So, given the low priority the issue is getting from rank-and-file Republicans, Republican leaders in the Senate have room to negotiate. For his part, Obama is being careful about when to intervene in talks, concerned that he could polarize the issue if he becomes more publicly involved. (A White House official still takes part in most meetings on Capitol Hill.) Meanwhile, much as Obama created room nationally for an immigration overhaul through a tough enforcement policy, he’s giving Republican leaders on the issue space to get support from fellow GOP lawmakers. Obama knows he has to give his seal of approval to anything Republicans do on this front.

A very different dynamic is at work on the budget. Republicans feel strongly about the budget, which is a core political brand issue. Since at least Reagan’s era, low taxes and less government spending have always been a core tenet of Republican orthodoxy. Mitt Romney won voters who care most about the deficit by a margin of 2 to 1, and in a January Post-ABC poll, two-thirds of Republicans said federal spending cuts were a top priority for Obama and Congress. Anti-tax interest groups such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and the Club for Growth make it their business to target Republicans who fall out of line on fiscal policy.

While clashing with Obama on taxes and spending may have risks for Republicans, the electoral consequences are much less clear than, for example, with immigration. The public clearly disagrees with the GOP on policy specific deficit cuts, but Republicans can point to deficit-focused voters who will come out and support them enthusiastically.

The budget issue is also much more scattered; people's views are all over the place on different questions. It’s fairly easy to grasp what it means to offer a long-time illegal immigrant a chance to stay in the United States permanently. But while Americans tend to support Obama’s specific positions in the nation’s fiscal debate, there are many more gradations of opinion. Issues of taxes, spending, deficits and debt are far less intuitive to voters. Support among voters for Obama’s budget position is broad but diffuse.

For these reasons, Obama is having trouble converting his public support for his budget priorities into legislative action or consensus. There’s little reason to think further increasing broad public support for Obama’s positions will change the congressional dynamics. The voters who Obama needs are Republicans in the Senate. The White House sees maximizing support in the Senate as the best hope of generating momentum in the House.

That is why the president is meeting with Republicans in small groups. In these meetings, he is trying to overcome what the White House sees as a key problem: The fact that Republicans may not know he is willing to compromise on entitlements and spending. Obama is hoping that these meetings may create a group of Republican senators who will take charge on the budget – like Rubio and others have done on immigration – and create room for other Republicans to join, as well.

Over time, if sequestration makes life untenable for too many Republican constituents, they may face new incentives to do a deal with Obama. But until then, fundamental forces will be working against a sweeping budget agreement.

EMILY's List launching 'Madam President' campaign: The Democratic women's organization EMILY's List is launching a campaign to put a woman in the White House in 2016, starting with a six-figure online ad buy targeting women on Oprah's Web site, the New York Times, New York Magazine, HelloGiggles,  Feministing and BlogHer.

Is it a campaign for Hillary Clinton? Not exactly. "Voters across the country are excited about her possible run. But if she decides not to run, we still have a deep bench of incredible female leaders to choose from," EMILY's List President Stephanie Shriock writes in a CNN op-ed. A YouTube video announcing the campaign shows a blonde woman being sworn in... but we only see the back of her head.

Obama to challenge Plan B ruling: The Obama administration will challenge a court ruling requiring emergency contraceptives to be made available over-the-counter to women of all ages.

Plan B is currently sold to teenagers younger than 17 only with a prescription and for all women it must be requested from a pharmacist. The FDA has just approved the drug for women and girls ages 15 and up, and to have it sold over-the-counter with age verification. But the Obama administration has resisted total access, a decision a judge described as "politically motivated."

Cutter and other Obama alums start consulting shop: Three veterans of President Obama’s 2012 campaign are launching a new consulting firm, Precision Strategies. Obama deputy campaign managers Stephanie Cutter and Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, and digital director Teddy Goff, are behind the firm, which aims to take the winning formula of the Obama reelection and apply it not just to other campaigns and advocacy groups but to consumer brands, financial firms, and media and technology companies.

Also on the team are former Obama campaign spokesman Frank Benenati, Obama digital fundraising campaign manager Julia Prieto, and former Obama for America communications staffer Lucy Silver.


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will speak at the Reagan Presidential Library on May 31, an event that is already sold out. Jeb Bush spoke at the library in March.

Media strategists are putting issue ads on ESPN in hope of catching President Obama's' eye.

Beyonce was “(B)(6)”'d by the Marine Corps.

There are some unflattering memories in Terry McAuliffe's book.

William Koch must face a lawsuit alleging he held a businessman captive at his ranch.

Must Reads: 

"SEC issues subpoenas to ‘political intelligence’ firms in connection with leaked information" - Tom Hamburger and Dina ElBoghdady, Washington Post

"Obama’s case against war in Syria" - Olivier Knox, Yahoo News

"Group sought to protect Wasserman Schultz’s congressional seat, emails show" - Marc Caputo, Miami Herald



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