The recent mid-term elections left President Obama in a precarious position. The overwhelming Republican victory, seen by some as an indictment of the president’s administration, supposedly confirmed Mr. Obama’s lame duck status. Yet not three weeks after the Democrats’ loss, Mr. Obama’s immigration reform has shifted the political landscape and set his administration on a new course.
In many respects, the president’s executive action was a necessary, if ironic, outcome of the mid-term elections. Faced with a hostile congress emboldened by their noteworthy win and rapidly diminishing time in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama was forced to grapple with a simple choice: run out his presidency mired in political deadlock or reverse course on his calls for unified action and go it alone. He chose the latter and, in so doing, regained much of the political sway he lost during the mid-terms.
That such pragmatism was wrapped in a reform that beckons liberal idealism and courts Hispanic votes was a shrewd political step. In one quick move, Mr. Obama has redefined the 2016 presidential election, presenting Republicans with a sticky conundrum. Do they embrace immigration reform, thus alienating much of their base, or stand in reform’s way, thereby relinquishing any hope of attracting ever-more important Hispanic voters? Considering the demographic differences in voter turnout between mid-term and presidential elections, the Republicans would be hard-pressed to seriously challenge a worthy Democratic candidate if they were to cede the entire Hispanic voting bloc.
By ensuring another Democratic presidency, Mr. Obama would accomplish something no Democratic president has achieved since the 19th century: he will have left office with an elected successor in place. (Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy’s successors, Truman and Johnson, assumed office because of their bosses’ tragic and untimely deaths, not their own electoral wins.) Critically, a third consecutive Democratic term would secure Mr. Obama’s key legislative accomplishments and bolster a reputation in need of fortification. Presidents, notoriously concerned with their legacies, are often quick to re-imagine their political narratives in more favorable light during their final years in office; Mr. Obama may have found a way to actually alter his narrative, for the better, in his presidency’s closing moments.
The path forward will not, however, be easy. Conservative voices quickly denounced the president’s action as an illegal and egregious overreach. While Mr. Obama does claim historical precedent and firm legal grounds, he will have to defend his administration from sharp attacks. That George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Dwight Eisenhower authored similar, but smaller scale, executive orders will not deflect Republican criticism. To achieve both his short-term goal (immigration reform) and his long-term vision (a third presidential term for Democrats), the president must stand his ground. He must remember that the more conservatives attack immigration, the brighter the Democratic future becomes.