Obama Shows Limits of Executive Power by Using It on Immigration

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Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama did more than just announce that he’ll use executive power to prevent deportations. He showed fellow Democrats, recalcitrant Republicans and the American public that he won’t play the lame duck.

The show of power on immigration last night presaged a final two-year denouement in which Obama fights legacy-building battles on issues that matter to his base, even as it also revealed the limits of what he can do without Congress.

“This is the kind of issue where the Latino community, going into the midterms and before that, were feeling, ‘Who’s standing with us?’” said Representative Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat. “They knew the Republicans weren’t. And they kind of felt that maybe the Democrats weren’t either. What the president did is stand with them.”

Still, he said, “The action the president did is temporary.”

The immigration order could be undone by the next president, and stops well short of the impact of Senate legislation that died in the House, a bill that would have covered 8 million people and enshrined the changes in law. His recent climate-change pact with China relied on powers he already has, and he can only suspend -- not repeal -- sanctions on Iran if he strikes a deal to curtail that country’s nuclear ambitions.

So while the president’s team is still holding out prospects for deals with Congress on trade and increased infrastructure spending, Obama will have to go it alone for the most part, as he did last night, and that means there’s only so much he can do.

‘An Emperor’

Not only that, Republicans, and a handful of Senate Democrats, have said Obama’s exercise of executive power will make it harder for him to work with Congress.

“The president has said before that ‘he’s not king’ and he’s ‘not an emperor,’ but he’s sure acting like one,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said before Obama’s speech last night. “And he’s doing it at a time when the American people want nothing more than for us to work together.”

Veteran Washington political hands say Obama is only end-running lawmakers because he doesn’t have much time left in power. He’ll work with Congress when he can and use his executive authority when he can’t. What he won’t do, they say, is wait.

“The one certainty is that 24 months from today, they’ll be preparing to leave,” said Charles Brain, who was the director of the White House’s legislative affairs office at the end of the Clinton presidency. “So whatever he can get done, they will be doing. The clock is ticking.”

Legal Powers

In his speech last night, Obama said his plan, which would shield as many as 5 million of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., is within his legal powers as president. He also chided lawmakers for killing the Senate-passed bill that would have created a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, expanded the country’s temporary-worker program and enhanced border enforcement.

“To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer,” he said. “Pass a bill.”

Obama’s action is certain to be tested in the courts by critics who contend he’s usurping legislative power from Congress. Outside the legal framework, several Democratic senators yesterday echoed Republican complaints about Obama ignoring the legislative process, and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week showed that 48 percent of Americans opposed the action while 38 percent supported it.

‘Poison’ Compromise

“I’m disappointed the president decided to use executive action at this time on this issue as it could poison any hope of compromise or bipartisanship in the new Senate before it has even started,” Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, said in a statement.

Republicans say they’re surprised that Obama’s reaction to losing control of the Senate and ceding House seats is to turn away from Congress and compromise.

Most Democrats, though, want more of the same from him on other issues. They say that will bolster his legacy.

“There’s a bounce in the step of most Democrats as a result of today. More of it. Let’s get something done,” said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. “Anything he can do to get our economy going, to address climate issues, to provide some relief to a broken immigration system -- every area where we face real problems -- he should use what authority he has.”

Lame Ducks

Robert A. Strong, the William Lyne Wilson professor of politics at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, said it’s too easy to dismiss presidents as lame ducks in their final years, months and even days in office.

President George W. Bush redirected his Iraq strategy after Republicans lost both chambers of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections, and President Jimmy Carter worked up until his last hours in office to secure the release of Iranian-held American hostages after losing the 1980 presidential election.

“We overdo this business about calling presidents lame ducks,” Strong said. “The office has plenty of power and plenty of opportunities for presidential discretion all through the term.”

Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who worked closely with Obama when the president was a senator, said he’s surprised by the tack his old friend has taken.

“I’m kind of amazed that they didn’t kind of just step back and pause and say, ‘Things were a little different on the election. Should we not give it a try to compromise, see if we can’t get some things done?’” he said. “I don’t know whether it’s defiance or disappointment, but it’s discouraging, because our country really needs positive leadership and positive vision.”