President Obama's announcement last Friday of a change in immigration-enforcement policy was the latest in a series of attempts to seize control of the narrative in this election cycle — and at least for the moment, the most effective in nearly two months. A week earlier, Obama had tried to grab the weekend news cycle with an ad hoc press conference on the economy, only to commit a huge gaffe by arguing that "the private sector is doing fine"... despite the poor jobs report from the previous Friday. That led to a "reframing" speech on the economy in Ohio last Thursday, which turned out to be a rehash of a speech Obama gave in April. When the media noticed that the president almost literally had nothing new to say about the economy, the White House shifted gears to immigration to change the subject.
The strategy has worked, for now. Over the weekend, the media chewed over what the immigration-enforcement change meant for the election. Obama's action allowed him to heal a breach with Latino voters, who had grown angry over increased deportations during his presidency, as well as with a lack of attention on immigration reform for the last three and a half years.
Republicans ended up on the defensive after getting caught blindsided by the change. Mitt Romney had pursued a careful course on immigration policy, one blazed by Sen. Marco Rubio, who emphasizes border security with a need to deal humanely with the families of those who entered or overstayed illegally. Rubio, who had been working on crafting a bipartisan coalition of support for his version of a DREAM Act, ended up leading the response by rebuking Obama for his unilateral effort, rather than working with Congress to pass a new law that would present some stability in addressing these cases. Romney followed suit, criticizing Obama for bypassing Congress rather than the end result. Most of the political analysis focused on Romney playing defense, the first time in weeks that has happened, and the Obama campaign had all weekend to enjoy the change.
By October, the economy will have buried this moment.
Well, the weekend was all they got. By Monday, even The New York Times reported the act as nakedly political, after Obama political advisor David Plouffe stumbled on Sunday talk shows trying to claim otherwise. The Times' Julia Preston and Helene Cooper noted the reasons for Obama's sudden change in direction, after spending most of his term insisting that the issue couldn't be solved through unilateral executive action. The reasons? "[H]e was losing the initiative to Republicans on an issue he had long championed," "he was alienating the Latino voters," and illegal immigrants had "started a campaign of sit-ins and hunger strikes at Obama campaign offices in more than a dozen cities" after waiting almost four years for Obama to address the issue of immigration reform. It's very easy to detect the whiff of panic.
That doesn't necessarily make the policy bad, but it doesn't make it good, either. Obama's move has significant long-term political risks, not the least of which is the perception that Obama may have overstepped his authority once again. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) promised a lawsuit to block implementation of the rule change. Rubio told me in a conversation Monday that no one from the White House has ever bothered to contact him to work on a comprehensive approach to solving immigration issues, and that he had heard that the Obama administration had even pressured activists to stop working with Rubio on immigration reform. Indeed, Obama's power play risks leaving the impression that not only did he overreach again, but that he didn't even bother to reach (out to the GOP) in the first place, instead opting for a unilateral move that might not have been necessary at all.
Nor does the change make much sense while our economy is in decline. Six years ago, this policy would have supplied needed workers in a jobs glut, when the civilian participation rate was 66.2 percent and unemployment at 5 percent. Today, the nominal jobless rate is 8.2 percent, and the civilian participation rate is lower than it was in Ronald Reagan's first midterm election in 1982, at 63.8 percent. While increased immigration could boost the economy, this order doesn't increase immigration at all — so it will produce no new demand to meet. It will, however, add hundreds of thousands of new legal workers to the workforce — when 23 million Americans have already been sidelined in the jobs market.
If the next jobs report comes back looking weak, the question of adding so many new workers to the mix will begin to get asked by more and more people. That will trump any benefit Obama gets from the rule change, because people are far more interested in jobs and the economy than in immigration reform. This change only provides Obama with a short-term boost and a short-term distraction from the main focus on this election — and it comes about four months too early to help.
Why not wait for October? By then, Rubio's efforts might have eclipsed Obama's opportunity. But then again, given Republican skepticism about approaching normalization policy ahead of border security, the risk seems rather low. Romney adviser John Sununu argued in The Boston Globe that the White House is on the verge of panic over its inability to deal with the economy and Romney, and that panic has now begun to drive Obama's policy decisions. In this case, it not only drove the decision but also the timing, and stripped Obama of yet another potential game-changer down the stretch of the general election. By October, the economy will have buried this moment along with Obama's gay-marriage evolution to ancient and only slightly curious factoids of political history.
Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.