President Obama is soon expected to use his executive power to change U.S. immigration policy. But don't expect him to stop there.
Frustrated by GOP opposition in 2013, Obama and his team spent much of the last year trying to work around Republicans on Capitol Hill. And they are determined to continue that strategy in Obama’s final two years in office, using executive orders and actions, urging states to take up proposals that Republicans in Congress will not support, working with corporations and foundations on other projects.
Administration officials say they expect Loretta Lynch, the woman tapped to replace Eric Holder at the Department of Justice, to fight voter ID laws and other GOP-passed voting provisions, reaching the president’s goals on civil rights issues through the courts, if Lynch wins Senate conformation.
Obama plans to use his executive power both to effectively legalize some of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States and impose limits on emissions for both new and existing power plants, which is part of a broader climate change agreement he reached with the Chinese government last week.
And next month, Obama will host business leaders, education experts and political figures at a White House event on early education, with the goal of finding ways to expand pre-kindergarten programs, since Congress has opposed Obama’s national initiative on that issue. The president is using a similar coalition for “My Brother’s Keeper,” his program to improve the lives of black and Latino young men, an initiative he will continue in his last two years.
“One of the things we're learning is that there's a real power to being able to convene here in the White House, not every problem has to be solved just through a bill, just through legislation,” Obama said in an recent interview on CBS.
The president, according to administration officials, will continue to embrace executive action and other moves that don’t involve Congress for two reasons. The most obvious is that it is a way to accomplish his goals, like raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, as Obama did earlier this year, even if he can't get a broader wage hike through Congress.
The second is he hopes by highlighting certain issues at the White House, even through very limited executive actions, to push ideas into the American political discourse, forcing both the press and the 2016 candidates to address them as well.
In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer suggested Obama's moves could force future presidential candidates to be "pro-immigration, pro-same-sex marriage, pro-economic fairness." He also predicted, "no climate denier will ever be president again.”
The limits of this strategy are obvious. Executive actions on immigration and climate change will cause fights with Republicans on Capitol Hill, who are already promising to use the budget process to limit them. Even some Obama supporters, like New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait, have questioned the wisdom of the president essentially declaring he won’t enforce parts of immigration law, arguing that sets an example that could be used in a way Democrats would not like if a Republican president is elected.
And such moves can be reversed if Obama has a Republican successor, so they are not permanent, as a true immigration bill passed by Congress would be.
Obama and his aides say they want to work with Republicans if they can. The administration has highlighted four issues where it hopes to reach agreements with the GOP over the next two years: early childhood education, financing projects to rebuild roads and other infrastructure, international trade agreements and tax reform that might lower corporate rates but also eliminate some ways that companies limit their tax liability.
But an agreement between the two parties is not guaranteed on any of those issues, particularly if Republicans are angered by Obama's moves on immigration. And the president wants to act on a much wider range of topics anyway.