Saturday, 22 November 2014

Obama on collision course with Congress

After years of denying that he would have the authority to introduce immigration reform without Congress, Obama has now changed his mind. He signed an executive order giving about 5 million illegal immigrants in the US the right to work.

His change of mind has raised eyebrows even amongst supporters of the move. Commentators have pointed out that Obama's decision is rash to say the least, given that some Republicans in the Congress have privately indicated to be ready to talk about immigration reform. Whilst Obama's executive order is a gift to the Democrats in the short term, in the long run it may well be Republicans who benefit most from it. Many of them recognised that increasing their vote share amongst Latinos was conditional on getting immigration reform passed. However, the Republican Party was deeply split on the issue. By introducing the reforms bypassing Congress, Obama has moved the issue out of the way.

Yet, deep reservations remain about the way in which Obama has temporarily solved the issue. First, as some commentators noted, executive orders were never supposed to be used to enact laws that affect millions of Americans. Those who point out that Obama has used this vehicle on fewer occasions than his predecessors are missing a point. The magnitude of immigration reform is something that would have stopped any other president from using executive order in this context.

On top of this, there is the temporal character of this reform. Obama might have solved a problem for some immigrants for now, but the executive order can be revoked by his successor and, given how his unilateral action has poisoned the atmosphere between Congress and President, any future compromise is now less likely than ever.

So, in the end, the legacy of Obama's decision is ambiguous. He managed to remove an obstacle to work for some people for about two years, but in all likelihood, equally closed off any avenue for future compromise with Congress. As before, Obama, who wanted to change all, has probably done more than any other president to cement the status quo.

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