For a president so concerned with his legacy, Barack Obama is being remarkably short sighted. He seems convinced that his immigration actions will be viewed favorably by history, that he will be seen as having fixed a clear problem with America’s fractured immigration laws. Little wonder then that Democrats are already comparing his announcement to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
But how this will play out is much less clear, especially given that we already have a reasonable analog from President Obama’s first term. Fred Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard:
There’s a lesson from President Obama’s first term that he should have learned long ago. It’s simple: On an issue that affects many millions of Americans, it’s best—even necessary—to have bipartisan support in Congress. Going forward in a purely partisan fashion is bound to cause national discord, increase polarization, and heighten distrust in Washington. Worse still, it means the issue will be controversial for years to come. . .
The same is likely to occur with Obama’s executive amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants. It is doubly doomed to be regarded as illegitimate—first, because it stretches presidential authority beyond the breaking point, and second, because it has no bipartisan backing. Obama’s action is supported by many (but not all) Democrats in Congress but zero Republicans.
The lack of legitimacy poses a long-term threat to the governance vision of President Obama, and indeed all self-professed progressives. For liberalism to thrive Americans have to believe that big government can function effectively to improve their lives, either through government-run welfare programs or control over certain economic decisions. Handing over that much control, especially when skepticism of centralized government is ingrained in our cultural heritage, requires an immense amount of faith. And faith, as columnist David Brooks said on NPR recently, is not something fostered by skating the edges of the constitution.
“[W]e have a system of government that people don’t believe in anymore, because it’s dysfunctional and people are just taking unilateral action and not listening to each other,” Brooks said. “This is another example. I think politically, the president hopes that if he punches the Republicans in the fact, they will do something incredibly stupid and shut down the government or do something insane, and then he will benefit politically.”
But it’s this sort of tit-for-tat partisan sniping that has pushed Washington to historically low approval ratings. It’s also frustrated the once optimistic Millennial generation. A recent Harvard poll found that over the last four years the number of young adults who agreed with the statement, “elected officials seems to be motivated by selfish reasons,” has gone up 8 points. There has also been a 6 point increase in the number who say that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results” and a 7 point increase in those who would say that “elected officials don’t seem to have the same priorities I have.”
An entire generation of voters is quickly becoming disillusioned with the politicking in Washington. Rather than mend the divide in an attempt to get things done, President Obama has attempted to navigate the political riptide in a way that benefits his party.
It didn’t have to be that way. The most recent elections offered a renewed opportunity to restore some hope in the process. Republican majorities in the House and Senate promised to pass a number of small bills that nevertheless could have had a big economic impact. They also had a goal of restoring normal order, in which House committees voted on individual appropriations bills rather than large omnibus packages. Either of these would have gone a long way towards returning to a sense of functioning normalcy in Washington, but both appear out the window because President Obama has opted for a confrontational stance.
That’s should be disappointing for everyone. Republicans should lament losing their opportunity to get their ideas in front of voters. Democrats should mourn giving up their chance to restore trust in the institution of government, which their ethos is wholly dependent on. And independents, well this pretty much vindicates their detachment. Surely none of that is the legacy Obama wanted, and yet oddly enough it is the legacy he has chosen for himself.