By calling a halt to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants, President Obama not only helps himself politically with two groups vital to his reelection — Latinos and young people — but also shows the advantage that comes with a seat in the Oval Office.
So long as the economy struggles and joblessness stays persistently high, another four years will remain an iffy proposition for the Democratic incumbent.
But unlike distractions that have dominated the presidential campaign in recent weeks — discussions of stay-at-home moms, the treatment of animals, Donald Trump and the president’s birth certificate — Obama’s order on immigration speaks to constituencies that could potentially swing half a dozen or so critical states in November.
There are obvious ones — Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and, topping the president’s wish list, Arizona — with sizable Latino and youth populations the Obama campaign is eager to mobilize. But others, like Virginia, Iowa and North Carolina, could be close enough in November that the votes of their smaller but burgeoning immigrant populations could make a difference as well.
Appearing in the Rose Garden at the White House, Obama announced Friday that, effective immediately, young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally before age 16 and spent at least five continuous years here would be allowed to stay and apply for work permits if they had no criminal history and met other criteria, such as graduating from high school or serving honorably in the military.
By acting unilaterally, through an executive order, Obama underscored one of the great strengths of presidential incumbency: the ability to change the campaign conversation in an instant. In the time it took for word to leak in Washington, Obama’s move shunted aside a not-terribly-well-reviewed speech on the economy he had delivered in Ohio a day earlier.
Democrats who have been urging the president to do more with the powers he has at hand were delighted.
“Most Americans would think it’s cruel and insane to punish innocent children for the mistakes of their parents,” said Craig Varoga, a party strategist involved in races in more than a dozen states, who dared opponents to “punch back” at Obama and show “they have no compassion.”
More significantly, the president further complicated the task facing Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
The former Massachusetts governor alienated many Latinos with the uncompromising stance he took against illegal immigration during the primaries, which served him well by fending off challengers to his right and rallying an important part of the GOP base. Now, however, he must win back many of those disenchanted Latino voters and assuage others unsettled by his tough talk, or his hopes for the White House — to use the candidate’s own word — are likely doomed.
In a sign of the challenge he faces, Romney offered no comment for several hours after Obama’s announcement, finally delivering a statement that straddled the issue by citing a need to resolve the status of innocent young people facing deportation but without saying how. Instead, Romney accused Obama of making a solution more difficult and playing politics.
The president has his own fraught history with the Latino community, which strongly supported his candidacy in 2008. Not only has Obama failed to deliver the comprehensive immigration reform that he promised, but a record number of people have been deported from the U.S. under his watch.
For that reason, Jan van Lohuizen, a Republican pollster, doubted that Obama would derive much political benefit from the shift in policy, especially given its timing.
“I think most Hispanics will say, ‘Thank you very much,’ but I’m not sure it will be sufficient to turn out their vote,” said Van Lohuizen, a pollster for President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, which drew considerable Latino support. “It’s just too close to the election to be credible at this point.”
That said, the president’s difficulties are comparatively modest next to the problem Republicans face in the Latino community after nearly two decades of harsh rhetoric and advocacy of increasingly punitive proposals. Anger and disappointment at those policies are part of the reason that states such as Nevada and Colorado — following California’s precedent — have grown increasingly Democratic in recent years.
Several of the party’s most prominent anti-illegal-immigration activists lashed out after Obama’s announcement, a contrast with Romney’s more measured response.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed into law one of the nation’s toughest crackdowns on illegal immigrants, called the move unconstitutional. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said he would file suit to block the president’s move. Others accused Obama of running roughshod over Congress, which has repeatedly rejected legislation that would have given certain young immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship.
Perhaps the more noteworthy response, though, was the qualified support from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the son of Cuban immigrants, a much-talked-about vice presidential prospect for Romney and, in the eyes of many, the face of the Republican future in an increasingly diverse America. He is formulating a measure that would legalize the status of some young people who are in the U.S. illegally, but that wouldn’t offer the path to citizenship contained in the immigration bill voted down by lawmakers.
“Today’s announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer,” Rubio said, though he criticized it as “a short-term answer to a long-term problem” — the argument that Romney took up a few hours later.
Indeed, unlike an act of Congress, the executive order could be reversed by a future president; while it puts pressure on his Republican rival, Obama’s announcement could also feed perceptions that he was acting less out of compassion than political self-interest.
The order was not without precedent. For months, Obama has been campaigning against recalcitrant Republicans in Congress by taking a series of unilateral actions under the slogan “We can’t wait.” His action on immigration was the biggest one yet and, right or wrong, spoke much louder than words.