Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Immigration and the Powers of Incumbency

There are a lot of drawbacks to running for re-election when the unemployment rate hits 8.2 percent and a majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. You get blamed for problems that are not your fault -- such as high gas prices -- and are at the mercy of events you cannot control. Economic turmoil in Europe or a shut-off of oil supplies from the Middle East could destabilize the economy and impair President Obama's chances in November.

But an incumbent president also has tremendous advantages. He can use his powers to highlight issues, make appointments and enact policies in ways that no challenger can begin to match. And Obama has just provided a textbook example of how to employ those powers in the area of immigration reform.

Using his executive authority, he mandated that young people who were brought here illegally as children would no longer be deported and could apply for a new status leading to work permits, Social Security cards and driver's licenses -- but not citizenship. Anywhere from 800,000 to 1.4 million could qualify. That's a fraction, but a visible and vocal one, of the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States.

The Republican reaction graphically demonstrated the frustrations of being the out party in an election year. The president is "playing politics," Republicans protested. Duh. Of course he was playing politics, and playing it well. A new Bloomberg poll showed voters supporting the policy 64 percent to 30 percent, with independents backing the move by more than 2-to-1.

But the president's prime target is Hispanic voters. Two out of three backed him in 2008, but almost 80 percent of Hispanics younger than 30 voted Democratic. Energizing young Latinos could tip the balance in critical swing states from Colorado to Florida.

The immigration issue has an added benefit to the president: It splinters the Republican Party. Hard-line conservatives immediately denounced the president's announcement and accused him of coddling lawbreakers. Rep. Steve King of Iowa vowed to block the policy in court and fulminated, "Americans should be outraged that President Obama is planning to usurp the constitutional authority of the United States Congress and grant amnesty by edict to 1 million illegal aliens."

More reasonable Republicans -- who understand the power of the Latino vote -- are horrified at that sort of rhetoric. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently chided his own party for adopting an "orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement" and cited immigration as a glaring example.

"Don't just talk about Hispanics and say immediately we must have controlled borders," said Bush, who is married to a Mexican-American and speaks Spanish. "Change the tone, would be the first thing. Second, on immigration, I think we need to have a broader approach."

The fissure in Republican ranks was highlighted recently when more than 150 evangelical Christian leaders released a statement calling for a more "just and fair" immigration policy. Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, an influential radio ministry based in Colorado, told a press conference, "I think the people are in a different spot than the politicians on this issue. I think people are tired of the rhetoric and looking for some improvement in the immigration system."

Yes, they are, which is why Mitt Romney made such a serious mistake during the primary campaign when he sided with the hard-liners on immigration by suggesting that illegals "self-deport." Instead of being just and fair, his policy was the opposite: morally insensitive, politically damaging and practically impossible.

That left Romney sputtering when Obama introduced his new initiative. If he endorsed the president's idea, he would alienate his conservative base; if he denounced it, he would further damage his standing with Latinos. As a result, he issued a lame criticism that Obama should have enacted a "long-term solution" to the problem, not a stopgap executive order.

Of course, Obama tried to do exactly that in 2010 by supporting the Dream Act, a sensible and worthy attempt to regularize the legal status of young immigrants. It actually passed the House and attracted 55 votes in the Senate -- but failed because of a Republican filibuster.

Is Obama playing politics with the immigration issue? Absolutely. But he's effective at it because Republican purists have given him the opening, demanding an "orthodoxy" from their nominee that any savvy politician who can actually count knows is nuts. Obama would be guilty of political malpractice if he didn't use the powers of his office to exploit that massive miscalculation.

More like Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts