The word of the day is herky-jerky, which is a polite way of saying erratic.
And which, I regret to report, is a fitting description of President Obama’s handling of immigration. And, I regret even more, a metaphor for his stumbling stewardship.
To recap and add perspective: The country’s immigration policy is broken, with 11 million undocumented immigrants forced to live in the shadows. That this situation endures is the fault of House Republicans who, captive to a gerrymandered, cable-inflamed populace that greets every reasonable solution with cries of “amnesty,” have rejected any comprehensive solution.
This recalcitrance may be rational, because it is in the individual political self-interest of House Republicans, if fatal to their party’s longer-term prospects. But it has pushed the president into the uncomfortable position of claiming broad powers to impose fixes on his own.
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This column will leave for another day the complex issue of whether the president is exceeding constitutional boundaries. Not because it’s unimportant but because that analysis depends on what the president actually does. And because it’s too important to cram into my larger point – which stands up no matter whether you think he’s overstepped.
So, back in March, the president instructed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to recommend executive actions to shield some illegal immigrants from deportation. In May, to avoid dooming the faint chance of a deal, he told Johnson to wait. By the end of June, with immigration reform legislation indisputably dead, the president declared himself poised to act.
“If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours,” Obama declared. “I expect (aides) recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay.”
And now … further delay. The matter hasn’t been finally settled, and factions within the White House are pushing different ways, but every signal is that the president is prepared to act – after the midterm elections. Senate Democrats, understandably wigged out about the prospect of losing control of the chamber, have been beseeching the White House to hold off.
Once again, this is a hole that the president helped dig himself into – and one that was easily foreseen. Once again, he looks weak and uncertain, not in control of his game. If he holds off now, having outlined a crisp timetable for action, he looks political, bowing to Senate Democrats. If he acts, he also looks political, knuckling under to Hispanic groups.
Once again, he has managed to infuriate political friends and foes alike. Hispanic groups, and his allies in organized labor, are furious at the presidential bait-and-switch.
Democratic political operatives can’t believe the president didn’t think through the implications of his timetable before the public announcement. Yes, there’s been a deluge of advertising attacking Democratic candidates for backing amnesty. That was entirely predictable.
Yes, the border crisis exploded right after the president’s announcement (it has improved, but public opinion has not caught up to reality). But this calculus should have been worked out before the president locked himself into a timetable. That’s what meetings are for.
Meanwhile, whether Obama acts now or acts later, Republicans will denounce him no matter what.
Sometimes if everyone is mad at you, it is proof that you are doing your job. Sometimes, it’s a sign that you are simply messing up.
The immigration mess would be less concerning – and the tone of this column more measured – if it were not reflective of a larger disarray in policymaking. Take Syria and the Islamic State. Chemical weapons are a red line – except they’re not. Obama’s prepared to order airstrikes on Syria – except he’s going to seek congressional approval, which, predictably, is not forthcoming. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, except the United States is dealing with Assad on chemical weapons.
More recently, the Islamic State is an “imminent threat” (Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel) that will require military action in Syria (Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey). How to square these comments with Obama’s whoa there news conference? A team of rivals is great. Debate away, in private. Teams need a captain.
Thus, even if Obama hadn’t committed the unforced error of announcing the obvious – “we don’t have a strategy yet” – the news conference would have been a disaster. The zig-zagginess of the message becomes even more jarring when the world is so explosively dangerous.
Calling this herky-jerky is being awfully polite.
Washington Post Writers Group