Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Immigration: Presidential Action, But a Divided Public

In the most important poll tested and talking point-ready policy of his second term, President Obama used his executive authority to provide millions of illegal immigrants a temporary safe status. They will be able to apply for work permits, driver licenses and basic documents.

In a ten minute TV address (covered live on 9KUSA but not the network), the President made his best case. In follow-up analysis, Brandon Rittiman and I discussed the politics:
  • In a speech better prepared than his last TV address on September 10 announcing the beginning of the “war” against ISEL, Obama took the controversial step that has long been promised and repeatedly delayed due to the politics. But, Obama believes action is better than no action to prove his relevance and lift the Democratic Party out its post-November 4th funk. His recent actions on climate change, net neutrality and now immigration reform displays him as a leader and not a lame duck.
  • The policy obviously rallies the progressive wing of his party and further cements its relationship with the Hispanic community, especially activists and elected officials (Hispanics gave Democrats 63% of their votes in midterm election according to exit polls). The degree of its long-term benefit assumes the Hispanic vote grows a percentage of the electorate and continues to vote Democratic. 
  • Republicans are divided in a response and, in spite of the fact that they will control both sides of the Hill next January, their options are either weak or vulnerable to appearing extreme. Lawsuits are slow and lack drama. The shutdown and impeachment wing of the party continue to agitate for the most harsh measures, offering controversial options for an issue the public relates as secondary. Establishment leaders and the party’s consulting class want to avoid hostility with Hispanics while countering the President’s order. Expect more emphasis on the executive order than the substances of the proposal.
  • In a change of pace for an Administration not known for smooth rollouts of initiatives, Obama had an answer for all the expected Republican counters such as its amnesty (what we have now is amnesty, this is accountability), it will lead to gridlock (this shouldn’t lead to a shutdown or stop us from other deals), it’s unconstitutional (other presidents have done it, this is a limited program).
  • The program clearly has risks. Indeed, recent polls confirm that an unpopular president unilaterally deciding a controversial initiative starts in a very weak position.
    • After the political disaster of November 4, Obama remains at 42 percent and his party is now in polls behind Republicans on handling a number of issues, including immigration.
    • A plurality of the public oppose executive action by the president on immigration. 
    • Amnesty is hard to define, but easy to label on immigration policy. The public supports a path to citizenship, but it requires conditions, and even then, a passionate opposition continues.
    • The public claims it voted November 4 against gridlock and the Democrats’ contribution to it. This act will clearly exasperate it. 
Colorado is one swing state where the Hispanic vote is very important. Needless to say, Michael Bennet supports the President’s policy.

How this plays out is unclear, but Obama and his fellow Democrats have finally taken a position. The President is convinced that alone is a victory that will set the stage for more.

Transcript: Obama’s immigration speech
New York Times: Hispanic voters are important for Republicans, but not indispensable
Washington Post: Understanding how Americans feel about immigration, in 7 easy charts
USA Today: Poll: Resistance to Obama order on immigration
Washington Post: This summer, support for a path to legalization dipped badly. It’s bounced back.

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