With his announcement that he will, in effect, unilaterally enact a key feature of long-debated immigration reform, President Obama is doing something he has always wished to do: Get around a Congress that doesn't see the issue his way.
In a speech to La Raza last July, Obama said that on the question of immigration reform, "some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own." Obama said he found the idea "very tempting" but had to reject it because "that's not how our system works."
The president was in a somewhat more combative mood last September, when he addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "As I mentioned when I was at La Raza a few weeks back, I wish I had a magic wand and could make this all happen on my own," Obama told the group. "There are times where -- until Nancy Pelosi is speaker again -- I'd like to work my way around Congress."
Instead of rejecting the idea out of hand, though, Obama told the lawmakers that he had the power, as president, to aggressively enforce, or not aggressively enforce, laws Congress has passed. "We've got laws on the books that have to be upheld," Obama said. But "you know as well as anyone that…how we enforce those laws is also important."
At the time, Obama conceded only that really big changes require the approval of Congress. "We live in a democracy, and at the end of the day, I can't do this all by myself under our democratic system," he said. "If we're going to do big things -- whether it’s passing this jobs bill, or the DREAM Act, or comprehensive immigration reform -- we're going to have to get Congress to act."
Now, Obama has decided, in the words of an Associated Press report, to "stop deporting and begin granting work permits to younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have since led law-abiding lives," a policy that "will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants." The action, which Republicans call amnesty and the administration calls "deferred action," will surely spark GOP calls to rein in the president's unilateral measures. The question will be whether any Democratic members of Congress, who might agree with Obama's policy goals, will dare express unhappiness with how he enacts them.