It’s official: President Barack Obama has punted on immigration until after the midterm elections. Although it is clear to see why he made his decision, it is undeniable that it will delay action. If nothing else, it will shake the Democratic Party’s already weak support base while simultaneously rallying the Republican Party’s base.
Midterm elections are often referendums on a sitting president’s performance and many Americans have expressed their disapproval of Obama, especially with his recent unilateral executive actions. So when Obama announced on June 30 that he would again use his executive power to make immigration reform without Congress’ consent before the end of the summer, he predictably faced immediate scrutiny from Republicans.
As the summer wore on, vulnerable Senate Democrats facing tough elections were put in an increasingly dangerous position, unable to come out in support of or against Obama’s strategy without angering key portions of their support bases. As a result, many Democratic senators joined Republicans in criticizing Obama’s immigration efforts and publicly distanced themselves from the president in TV ads and at fundraisers.
Without the support of key Senate Democrats, Obama had few allies left and was forced to delay any executive action until after the midterm elections. He justified the delay by arguing that the Republican Party’s politicization of the issue would be harmful to any policy that is made before the election and that proposing meaningful immigration reform now would only serve to intensify pre-election partisanship.
While his justification seems reasonable on the surface, the post-election political climate is unlikely to be any less polarized than it is now. In fact, if the Democrats lose control of the Senate, gridlock in Washington will reach new highs, as a Republican-controlled Congress will be at odds with Obama. In addition, Obama’s justification does not mention what was likely the largest factor behind his decision to delay: the desire to prevent immigration from becoming the defining issue of the 2014 midterms. Obama is seeking to avoid a repeat of the 2010 Republican landslide in response to the Affordable Care Act, which resulted in huge Democratic losses in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.
Most of all, Obama’s decision to delay any immigration action is a huge gamble for his party. His actions threaten to alienate Hispanic voters dangerously close to what is shaping up to be a hotly contested election. Obama is betting that Hispanic voters will remain loyal to the Democratic Party despite his June 30 promise to act independently. Obama’s actions make the Democratic Party appear internally divided. This will rally the Republican base by playing into the Republican Party’s argument that the president is waiting until after the election to overstep his authority in order to prevent any electoral consequences.