Should Obama Have Acted on Immigration Before the Midterms?

Dana Milbank ("Obama's big immigration mistake") thinks so.

Dana Milbank (“Obama’s big immigration mistake“) thinks so:

Back in July, when President Obama was deciding whether to take executive action on immigration before the midterm elections, I got into one of those cable-news debates that offer the president unsolicited advice from the unqualified.

I argued that the move would boost Hispanic turnout and rally a depressed Democratic base. Yes, it might hurt some vulnerable Democratic candidates, but it would cement Hispanic loyalty to the party in the long run: “It’s a question of, whose interest is he looking out for?”


The president declined to act on immigration before the election. But all the Democratic Senate incumbents in red states that he was trying to protect lost anyway on Tuesday. There’s evidence that the combination of low Hispanic turnout and lower Hispanic margins for Democrats doomed some Democratic candidates, including Charlie Crist, who lost his gubernatorial race in Florida, and perhaps Sen. Mark Udall, who lost his reelection bid in Colorado.

Worse, the fading ardor Latinos showed for Democrats raises the possibility that this reliable constituency – crucial to the party’s prospects in 2016 and beyond — is slipping away. Now Obama, to avoid even more trouble with Latinos, has vowed to take unilateral action on immigration by year end, even though GOP leaders say that will “poison the well” with the congressional majority. As the NBC News political team speculated: “Given the current situation, we think the White House wishes it went ahead and issued that executive action back in the summer.”

There is a lesson here that goes beyond immigration: Obama would have been better off if he had done what he thought was right and let the politics take care of themselves. When Halperin, co-author of the bestseller “Game Change,” and Democrat strategists called for postponing executive action, they were looking at politics as a game, moving pieces to maximize numbers after the next election. But politics is not just always a game of winning the next election. It’s about doing, as Obama belatedly remembered on Wednesday, “what I think is best for the country.”

Instead, his political calculation turned out to be too clever by half, and he wound up setting back a worthy cause without helping Democrats at the polls. “You repress the vote in the Latino community and what did you come up with?” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) asked rhetorically during a news conference in Chicago Wednesday, according to an account in Politico. He called the loss an “indication about what happens when you try to toy with your principles and your beliefs.”

In terms of the political calculus, it’s really unfair to Monday morning quarterback. Given that Democrats had close to their worst case scenario, it’s easy to look back and say that may as well have gambled on the long term. Obama and his advisors were trying to avoid the worst case, however, and thought they were doing so.

More importantly to me, however, is that Milbank elides the distinction between his preferred public policy outcome and the right thing to do. Immigration policy should be made by Congress, not executive fiat. That Congress is a giant pain in the ass to deal with right now is a fact of life. It does not, however, justify overturning the checks and balances that are a linchpin of our Republic out of frustration.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. al-Ameda says:

    He should have taken unilateral action, which Republicans have hammered him for – for nearly 6 years? That would have been interesting. I suppose you can make the argument that his taking executive action on this could hardly have resulted in a worse electoral outcome.

    Seriously, Republicans rejected the Rubio-Schumer Bipartisan Compromise Immigration proposal because, (1) it was not punitive enough, and (2) they did not want to give Obama anything he could point to as a bipartisan success in advance of the election. Republicans wanted this to remain a ‘resentment’ issue.

    That said, I personally believe that – following Boehner’s refusal to take up the Rubio-Schumer compromise – that Obama should have issued an executive order. The only thing the GOP understands is power, and Obama could have jammed this down their obstructionist throats. But, it’s just not his nature to fight back.

  2. stonetools says:

    More importantly to me, however, is that Milbank elides the distinction between his preferred public policy outcome and the right thing to do.

    Are you kidding me? Obama has been fighting for six years against a Republican Party that thinks the right thing to do is to block anything Obama proposes and to whip up hate against the brown hordes abroad and the black and brown enemies here at home.

    Tell you what, let the Republicans start doing “the right thing” and then you can call on Obama to respond in kind.

    Hindsight is 20/20. Obama did what the Senate Democrats wanted, and like everything else the Democrats tried this year, it wasn’t enough to surmount the fundamentals.

  3. Grewgills says:

    even though GOP leaders say that will “poison the well” with the congressional majority.

    Is that even possible at this point? Does poisoning a poisoned well make a difference?

  4. superdestroyer says:

    The Democrats keep claiming that the Republicans are not focusing enough on the economy. Yet, when given the chance to act, the Democrats want to push for amnesty and a doubling of the number of legal aliens admitted to the U.S. each year.

    When Scott Brown brought up illegal immigrant during the Senate race in New Hampshire, many of the left pointed out how few illegal aliens there are in New Hampshire. I think the Republicans missed a chance to drive a stake into the memes for comprehensive immigration reform. If everyone believed what Democrats said about illegal immigrants, then New Hampshire is a state of filthy restrooms, unpainted walls, unkempt lawns, few restaurants, and high unemployment. That New Hampshire is a state is low unemployment and better than average standard of living should show that the standard memes about immigration are wrong and the U.S. does not need nor should want open borders and unlimited immigration.

  5. Tyrell says:

    One immigration reform proposal has a broad base of support and is something that both parties and the president can finally agree on. This is not some pie in the sky, hope springs eternal garbage. It has accountability, responsibility, and measurable goals. It will not throw additional burdens on towns and states. It is not another give away program. It is written clearly with none of the vagueness, misleading language, and hidden details or surprises.
    Read about it at the Evangelical Immigration Table.

  6. JWH says:

    Yes, Obama should have acted within the outer limits of the Immigration & Naturalization Act, and he should have acted before the election. Congress, in turn, should have impeached the president if he exceeded the scope of his authority. I don’t care about the political calculus. I just want action.

  7. bill says:

    @superdestroyer: and oregon voted down giving illegals drivers licenses- pretty telling in such a democrat state.

  8. Kari Q says:

    GOP leaders say that will “poison the well” with the congressional majority.

    Yes, poisoning the well is the responsibility of the GOP leadership. Fortunately they were up to the job and immediately vowed to vote to repeal Obamacare. I’m sure there’s lots of ground to compromise on that one.

  9. al-Ameda says:

    @Kari Q:

    GOP leaders say that will “poison the well” with the congressional majority.

    As far as the GOP is concerned, the well was poisoned when the voters elected Obama president in 2008 and again in 2012.

  10. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tyrell: Your link seems to be a phantom. Using your key words leads to an article in the Jewish Daily Forward criticizing Evangelicals for encouraging Jews to emigrate to Israel. Or is that the plan?