Immigration reform: Starting with Latinos, Obama seeks lasting legacy

Immigration reform: Starting with Latinos, Obama seeks lasting legacy

Demographics is long. Politics is short. That's what President Barack Obama is counting on with his executive action on immigration.

President Obama is risking what may be short-term political setbacks in order to create a legacy for himself and the Democratic Party. He is seeking to shore up lasting support among key Democratic constituencies.

The president and his party are counting on demographics. Demographics delivered a great Democratic victory in 2012. This year, however, politics trumped demographics, and the Democrats were done in.

Obama's executive order on immigration - its details now largely leaked - is causing an immediate political backlash. The metaphors are multiplying! Senate Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the president's action is like "waving a red flag in front of a bull." House Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh.) warned the president, "If you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself." Mixing metaphors, Boehner accused Obama of "poisoning the well" of bipartisan cooperation for the remainder of his term.

Republicans in Congress are already planning retaliation. They're threatening to cut spending for any programme that enforces the president's order. They're threatening to hold up the federal budget for the remainder of this fiscal year. Or to pass it in little pieces, one month at a time, thereby forcing the White House into an endless, debilitating budget battle. Some hotheads - Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Representative Steven King (R-Iowa.) - are threatening to shut down the federal government again, even though the party leadership is warning them that a shutdown will blow up in their face, just as it did in 1995 and in 2013.

"You want to shut down the federal government?" Obama must be thinking. "Go ahead. Make my day."

The short-term politics is risky for another reason. Obama could further alienate public opinion. As it happens, the public supports comprehensive immigration reform. Even an eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who qualify.

But the public may not be with the president on the executive order because it looks like a power grab. After all, didn't they just vote to put Republicans in charge of Congress?

In the 2006 midterm during President George W. Bush's second term, the opposite happened. There was a huge outpouring of anger over the war in Iraq. Voters threw the Republicans out of power in Congress and turned both houses over to the Democrats. And what did Bush do? He announced a "surge" two months after the election, ordering 20,000 more US troops to Iraq.

Obama and his wife Michelle shake hands with attendees after remarks to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's awards gala in Washington

The surge caused on outpouring of rage from Democrats. Bush was showing contempt for the will of the people. He was giving voters the middle finger! The same thing Obama is accused of doing now.

Interesting thing, though. Once US troops got there, the violence in Iraq began to subside. Republicans insist the surge worked. The public's view of the war in Iraq never turned around, but the diminishing violence did enable US forces to withdraw. By 2008, the Iraq issue had virtually disappeared from the political agenda.

Obama clearly expects the same thing to happen now. After the initial firestorm, people will see that his immigration policy is working. And, in the long run, Democrats will reap the political advantage of normalizing the status of the rapidly growing immigrant population. Maybe as soon as 2016, when the electorate will expand as it always does in a presidential year.

The immigration order is one of several moves the president has made since the election to show he is far from defeated. Just as 2006 was the Iraq election, 2014 was the "Nobama" election: a massive vote of no confidence in Obama. Republicans everywhere depicted their Democratic opponents as "Obama clones."

The same thing happened to President Bill Clinton in the 1994 midterm, when Republicans ran "morphing" ads, showing the face of their Democratic opponents "morphing" into Clinton's face. Republicans dared not do that this year because it might have triggered charges of racism.

For months after the Democrats' crushing defeat in 1994, Clinton sulked. House Speaker Newt Gingrich acted as if he had taken over. There was that embarrassing moment at Clinton's April 1995 press conference, when he had to plead, "The president is relevant here."

The next day, the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed and Americans rediscovered just how relevant the president was.

Obama is not sulking. In fact, the midterm defeat seems to have given him new resolve. Obama went to China and came back with an agreement on climate change. China has, for the first time, committed itself to a programme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Critics of climate change can no longer use China's unwillingness to act as an excuse for US inaction.

US President Barack Obama attends a town-hall meeting at Facebook headquarters with CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Palo Alto

Now Obama looks about to issue an executive order halting the deportation of as many as five million illegal immigrants who would be forced to abandon their families. Obama may not get comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, but he has done what he believes he can do. He wants immigration and climate change to be the signature legacies of his second term.

Oh, and he also surprised everyone by coming out in favour of net neutrality. Where did that come from? The president wants Internet providers to be regulated like public utilities. Republicans are crying foul. They hate government regulation. Net neutrality is popular among tech savvy young people, however, who deserted the Democrats in droves in this month's midterm. The demographics of the issue are good.

And the politics? Instead of sulking in defeat, Obama is embracing climate change, immigration reform and net neutrality. Republicans are grumbling. The president's response: "In your face!"

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