He can do it alone. But he shouldn't.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Obama Has to Get Tactical on Immigration

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
Read More.
a | A

What is most important to President Barack Obama as he heads into the final two years of his presidency: improving his political standing and bolstering the Democratic Party’s future, or passing legislation and strengthening the economy? If he decides to grant legal status to millions of immigrants before the end of the year, he will be choosing politics over governing -- and may come to regret it.

It’s possible that, after the Democrats took a thrashing on Election Day, Obama never seriously reconsidered the commitment he made to legalize immigrants here illegally through an executive order. But the decision carries political, governmental, and economic ramifications that should be weighed against each other in light of the new Republican majority in Congress. Let’s consider each.

The political calculus remains clear: Taking bold action now would be cheered by Hispanics and help strengthen the Democratic Party’s relationship with a growing voting bloc. It would also embolden the most battle-ready Republicans, some of whom are already calling for a government shutdown or impeachment if the president proceeds. Either would accrue to the Democrats’ advantage, which is why the Republican leadership seems intent on tamping down such talk. This is a fight that Obama and the Democrats welcome and that Republicans fear.

Delaying an executive order, on the other hand, would produce an angry backlash from immigration leaders at a time when the White House is desperately in need of friends. If avoiding that fight and helping Democrats cultivate Hispanic support is Obama’s top priority, he should issue the orders without delay.

If, however, the president places greater priority on passing bipartisan legislation through the next Congress, he should give congressional Republicans a chance to take up the immigration issue early next year. Obama has already pushed back his timetable for executive action once. If he does so again, he can claim the high road and demonstrate to voters that he is genuinely interested in working with the new congressional majority. If Republicans don’t pass a bill, he can say: They failed, so I have no choice but to act.

If instead Obama acts unilaterally now, he will find it even more difficult to move his agenda (and nominations) through Congress. Issues that have the potential for bipartisan cooperation -- including trade, infrastructure investment and tax reform -- will become even harder to advance.

Obama would also be in a far weaker position to negotiate immigration reform, having already played his trump card.

Republicans will spend months trying to do undo the president’s executive actions, and if they eventually get around to writing a reform bill, Obama will be on the sidelines.

If they pass a bill that draws a veto, visa levels will remain in place for two more years, at considerable harm to the economy. While taking unilateral action would give a boost to the economy, it would make the more urgent economic need -- more visas -- harder to achieve. That is not a trade worth making so early in this new political season.

To torture a football analogy, taking executive action now would be a bit like kicking a field goal on third down even though there is still plenty of time left on the clock. If the drive ultimately falls short of a touchdown, Obama can still put points on the board. But he should not kick when he can run or throw.

Obama’s frustration with Republicans in the House, who refused to even consider the bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013, is understandable. They have spent his entire presidency prioritizing politics over governing.

Yet if the president now takes the same route, the prospects for bipartisan legislation -- the kind that defined Bill Clinton’s presidency after Republicans swept Congress in 1994 -- will become even more remote. That may help the Democratic Party in 2016, but it could come at a considerable cost to the remainder of Obama’s presidency -- and to our economy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net