This is hardly a picture of overreach.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Catch of the Day: Obama Didn't Overreach

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Catch of the Day to Tom Mann. This morning, I linked to his impassioned indictment of House Republicans and defense of President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration, but it deserves further attention. Here’s a taste:

The crocodile tears in reaction to President Obama acting well beyond his constitutional authority and destroying prospects in Congress for bipartisan agreement on a range of pressing public problems, including immigration, are laughable … Republicans have never accepted the legitimacy of his presidency nor demonstrated any willingness to enter into negotiations with him to deal with the Great Recession, stagnant wages, serious flaws in the regulation of financial services, unsustainable health care costs, a deteriorating infrastructure, climate change, and a widely acknowledged broken immigration system.

Now that the President has decided to use his well documented constitutional and statutory authority to ease temporarily one of the most difficult and painful problems facing the country, Republicans are shocked, yes shocked that he would “poison the well” and destroy any chance of bipartisan comity in the new Congress.

If Obama’s actions were a violation of the norms of his office, it would be worth condemning them, even if they were legal and were good policy. Informal rules matter.

But I haven’t seen any scholar of Congress or the presidency who believes that Obama is guilty of violating norms in this case, no matter how often opponents of the policy say he's done something wrong. Perhaps we could have an informal rule requiring presidents to back off on policy after losing midterm elections, but we don’t (see, for example, the surge in Iraq after the 2006 elections). Or perhaps we could have norms preventing presidents moving ahead on actions that make the opposition party angry.

Sure, presidents often choose to change course when they lose, and one could argue that it’s good politics for them to at least take into account electoral setbacks and the out-party’s views. But that doesn’t mean the president must do so, and it certainly doesn’t mean that he must back down. Good presidenting sometimes means cutting deals or even surrendering; sometimes it means fighting. Political instinct, rather than well-understood formal rules, are the proper guiding light (Vox’s Andrew Prokop gets to some of that here). If there's overreach here, it's regular old-fashioned political overreach, not some kind of aggrandizement of the presidency. 

The above assumes that Obama does in fact have legal authority for these actions. That appears to to be the case, but it’s for the lawyers to figure out. My point is that I strongly agree with Ross Douthat and others who argue that violations of political norms would deserve strong condemnation, even if the actions were perfectly legal -- but Obama doesn't seem to have violated any norm.

But scholars do agree that, as Tom says, Republicans "have reduced the legislative process to nothing more than a tool in a partisan war to control the levers of public power. The cost of such unrelenting opposition and gridlock is that policymaking initiative and power inevitably will flow elsewhere -- to the executive and the courts." Indeed, for all the talk of Caesarism and other nonsense, no one contests that if Congress took up Obama's challenge and passed a law, the president would abide by it. Just as Republicans in the House must believe Obama would obey judicial instructions or else they wouldn't have filed their irresponsible lawsuit

So: Nice catch!

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Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net