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Monday, February 18, 2013

The paradox of power, immigration reform edition

It's pretty amusing that Republicans are lambasting Obama for daring to stick his oar into the immigration reform process:
...Republicans quickly condemned the reports of a new administration plan, calling it “dead on arrival” and “very counterproductive”...

On Sunday, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, another Republican calling for immigration changes, said on “This Week” that the president’s efforts to develop his own legislation would undermine efforts on Capitol Hill and were taking “things in the wrong direction.” 
No one is more aware than Obama that he, as president "remains a polarizing figure," as the Times' Michael Shear and Julia Preston put it.  The last time Congress was huffing and puffing in the early stages of a Grand Bargain, almost exactly two years ago (2/15/11), over deficit reduction,  Obama explained why he had not unveiled a detailed plan:

“If you look at history of how these deals get done, typically it’s not because there’s an Obama plan out there. Its’ because Democrats and Republican are serious about dealing with [these issues] in a serious way,” the president said. “This is not a matter of you go first or I go first,” he said before describing a goal of “everybody…ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.”
So now, the administration purports to hold its plan in reserve, to be unveiled only if Congress gridlocks. Why brandish a plan at all?  For one thing, it's a kind of protection against howls about lack of leadership. Back in February '11, while a bipartisan Gang of Six revved its engines as today's Gang of Eight is doing now over immigration, Republicans in Congress sang a tune rather different from today's "get off our lawn":
House Republicans were giddy when President Barack Obama took a pass on entitlement reform in his 2012 budget, ripping him for punting on the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But when they’re pressed for answers about what needs to happen on entitlements, Republicans are punting right back, saying the president needs to take the lead and come up with his own ideas

Before stating their own policy prescriptions, no fewer than a dozen GOP lawmakers and aides Wednesday said that it is Obama’s responsibility to put forth ideas on entitlement reform.

“We need his leadership,” Ways and Means Republican Rep. Wally Herger (Calif.) said. “If it’s something this big to get through, it’s very important for the president to lead.”

Rep. Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said that the “president looks very small if he doesn’t lead on this issue.” Rep. Patrick Tiberi, an Ohio Republican cozy with Speaker John Boehner, said “you can’t have a big issue that impacts Americans without presidential leadership.” And Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), the president of the anti-Obama freshman class, said “quite honestly, he has a responsibility to America” to put forth his ideas and lead.
The truth is, faced with an extremist, bad-faith opposition, Obama is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't weigh in.  Or rather, he needs to exquisitely calibrate when the GOP has sufficient motive to part-own ambitious bipartisan legislation, and when bludgeoning on his part may help create that motive, blaming the GOP for blocking actions enjoying broad popular support. To some extent that's every president's conundrum. But after four years of GOP stonewalling and sabotage the Catch-22 is particularly acute.

Related: Ezra Klein, what about that paradox of power?

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