Regardless of what President Obama does on immigration reform, at least one faction of Democrats will be angry.
If he announces sweeping, unilateral changes to the nation’s immigration system, red-state Democrats — particularly vulnerable senators up for re-election — would take a hit for Obama testing the limits of his constitutional authority.
And if Obama plays it safe, opting not to extend deferrals of deportations to millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, progressives would revolt. With each passing day, supporters of executive action seem more bullish that the president will go big.
Obama will have to walk the tightrope of not endangering his party’s chances to retain the Senate while not sapping voter enthusiasm needed to compete in an unfavorable year for Democrats.
At the same time, the president is weighing his legacy and has fully acknowledged that his biggest regret is an inability to reform the nation's immigration system.
In other words, with Obama set to announce his plan before the end of summer, red-state Democratic senators are bracing for the worst.
“We’ve made it perfectly clear that we’d prefer the president not act alone on immigration,” said a senior campaign aide for one of the nation’s most vulnerable Senate Democrats. “The White House doesn’t seem to be listening to us. And that could play right into the Republicans’ hands.”
Such reasoning is why Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas have come out against Obama overhauling the nation’s immigration laws through executive action.
Their campaigns have calculated that whatever uptick they could get from increased voter turnout, particularly among Latinos, would be eclipsed by Republican indignation.
“So much of our politics right now is black and white, yes or no,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “The more nuanced approach is a lot harder to get across on a bumper sticker. Republicans could say, ‘She’s not your senator, she’s Obama’s senator.' ”
On the other end of the spectrum are supporters of executive action who also have little appetite for nuance from Obama.
“The president has the constitutional and legal authority to defer action on individual cases and confer employment authorization to millions on the grounds of prosecutorial discretion,” said Lorella Praeli, of United We Dream, the nation’s largest immigrant youth-led organization. “The president has a historic opportunity to show courage where Republicans showed cowardice.”
Obama has a variety of options at his disposal. Most immigration-reform supporters say the president should first extend the hundreds of thousands of deportation deferrals for Dream Act-eligible immigrants to close family members. Obama also could choose to deport only those convicted of more serious crimes.
Among the less politically toxic options are expanding the temporary foreign worker programs and making it easier to obtain a green card.
White House aides have been tight-lipped about the timing of Obama’s immigration announcement. They wouldn’t even speculate Tuesday on the reasons for moving on immigration ahead of the midterm elections.
Obama’s allies are banking that voters will focus more on the policy — the White House says its positions mirror public sentiment — than the process. As is the case with many issues, however, voters often ding the president for his governing style even if they support his policies.
And privately, moderate Democrats aren’t necessarily opposed to Obama pursuing unilateral action — they just don’t want him to do it before November.
"The support for [immigration reform] principles is not as widespread in the states where Democrats are most at risk," said one veteran Democratic pollster. "What really is the difference if the president waits until November?"