President Obama's decision to delay any executive action regarding the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country until after the election represents both a bow to political reality and a yet another reminder for the beleaguered president of the dangers of setting self-imposed deadlines.
This is a political crisis -- as it relates to the timing of a decision -- that is entirely Obama's own creation. Back on June 30 in a statement delivered in the Rose Garden at the White House, he uttered these words:
I have also directed Secretary Johnson and Attorney General Holder to identify additional actions my administration can take on our own, within my existing legal authorities, to do what Congress refuses to do and fix as much of our immigration system as we can. If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours. I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay.
The thinking -- at the time -- was simple: Obama wanted to make clear that if the Republican-led House refused to act on reforming the country's immigration system, he would. It was part of a broader message aimed at convincing (or re-convincing) the American public that Republicans were talkers (at best) and Democrats were doers.
But, what Obama and his senior aides failed to account for -- or underestimated -- was the blowback from within his own party to a major executive action by an unpopular president on an extremely hot-button issue. (Worth nothing: Obama's approval numbers eroded steadily over the summer and into the early fall; his political standing today is weaker than it was when he pledged action on June 30.) The move, it became clear, would have been seen as bigger than just immigration as well; it would have been cast (and was already being cast) by Republican candidates and strategists as simply the latest example -- Obamacare being the big one -- of federal government overreach.
This disconnect between the long-term legacy building prized by Obama and the near-term political concerns of many within his party is not new but, quite clearly, became a major point of tension. Democrats trying desperately to hold on to Senate seats in places like Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska and North Carolina and Democratic challengers trying to oust Republicans in places like Georgia and Kentucky expressed deep worries that Obama offering what their GOP opponents would cast as some form of "amnesty" to millions of undocumented immigrants could make the difference between a chance at retaining the Senate majority and, well, no chance.
The counter argument -- that an executive order from Obama on immigration would enliven the Democratic base and further cement Hispanics' support for Democrats -- is a powerful one in a presidential election year or a midterm year in which many of the states being most hotly contested have large Latino populations. That, as Obama as his team should have realized far earlier than today, is not this year.
By Friday, when Obama was asked to set a timeline on an immigration announcement during a press conference in Wales, it had become clear that his thinking had changed significantly from the bravado of of June. "My expectation is that very soon I will be considering what the next steps are," Obama said in one of the best/worst examples of political rhetoric you are likely to find. He added that he would make a decision on deciding "soon". Writing on wall.
Obama's decision -- and the re-thinking of that decision -- on immigration will echo for many his famous/infamous declaration of a "red line" against Syria and its use of chemical weapons. In both situations, Obama imposed a set of deadlines on himself that political and policy realities eventually made meeting virtually impossible. (Sidebar: This same sort of danger in deadline/expectation setting is what brought Rick Perry low in that famous/infamous "oops" debate of the 2012 campaign. Never say you are going to name a list of things unless you know said list stone cold.)
And, in promising action prior to the election only to delay it for (at least what appears to be) largely political reasons, Obama has ensured that Republicans can keep the issue alive in the midterms no matter what. "Make no mistake: President Obama plans to grant amnesty, it's just that he will cynically wait until after the election so as not to harm Senate Democrats like Jeanne Shaheen," said former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who is challenging Shaheen this fall, in a statement Saturday morning.
President Obama has done his party no favors with how he handled the timing of his executive action on immigration. His choice to delay the announcement until after the election is the least bad option available at the moment but Obama has only himself to blame for the lack of a good choices.