Last night, President Obama publicly aired his decision to go it alone on immigration reform. Well, somewhat publicly. Tellingly, none of the major broadcast networks opted to air President Obama’s address. The reason why is important.
“There was agreement among the broadcast networks that this was overtly political,” a network insider told POLITICO’s Mike Allen. “The White House has tried to make a comparison to a time that all the major networks carried President Bush in prime time, also related to immigration. But that was a bipartisan announcements, and this is an overly political move by the White House.”
The announcement was always meant to be political theater, aimed more at inflaming the income Republican Congress than about fixing the nation’s broken immigration system. That’s why the “exclusive” first glimpse of President Obama’s plan didn’t go to liberal stalwarts like MSNBC or the nation’s “paper of record,” The New York times. Instead, it went to Fox News, where pundits and prognosticators immediately whipped the issue into a political froth.
Keep in mind that the White House has already been called out for its “stray voltage” theory, which young adults will recognize more clearly as “trolling.”
“The theory goes like this,” wrote National Journal’s Major Garrett. “Controversy sparks attention, attention provokes conversation and conversation embeds previously unknown or marginalized ideas in public consciousness.”
This strategy was employed most visibly in the debate over the gender pay gap. The White House purposely released misleading statistics in order to drum out outrage from pundits and a continuous stream of stories from fact-checkers. It’s the “there is no such thing as bad publicity” form of government. And he’s doing it again on immigration.
After all, the public could not have sent a clearer message in the midterm elections. Republican candidates broadened their majority in the U.S. House, gained a strong majority in the U.S. Senate by winning several blue states, and made historic gains in governor’s mansions and state houses across America.
President Obama has seemingly tossed those results to the side, indicating that he was paying attention to “all those who didn’t vote.” Just days later, when asked about the lack of turnout among the president’s supporters, the White House responded by saying, “The president is leader of a coalition of people who voted when he was on the ballot.”
Even if that incredibly distorted view of representative democracy functioned as a governing ethic, in this case it would lead the president to a wrong conclusion. As David Gergen writes for CNN:
Coming on the heels of midterm elections that were a clear call for a change of course in Washington, starting in the White House, this is also a discouraging way to open the final years of this presidency. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds that by 53-40%, Americans feel positive about the election results; by 56-33%, they want Congress to set policy for the country, not the President; by 57-40% they favor a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants but by 42-32%, they disapprove of Obama overhauling immigration through executive order. Why isn’t the White House listening to the public?
It’s a great question. Sadly, the White House is giving us a poor answer. Rather than give the new Republican Congress a chance to pass a comprehensive immigration reform plan when they take their seats in January, the president wants to deny them the opportunity to steal his thunder. Issuing a controversial executive order, which he himself has said in unconstitutional, not only poisons the well for immigration reform, it is an act of willful nihilism meant to disrupt any relationship with Congress.
Cynically, the president appears to be hoping that Republicans will become so angry at his decisions to poke a sharp stick in the eye of their new majority that they do something foolish. It looks as though he wants them to shut down the government, or impeach him, or refuse to approve his appointments because that gives his party the political ammunition they need to win in 2016.
It’s a risky strategy, but more importantly, it’s a corrosive one that harms our institutions and threatens Washington’s ability to accomplish the will of the people. So perhaps the broadcast networks have it right; perhaps the best strategy is to not give the president what he seems to want: attention.